At Microsoft’s education event earlier this week, the company unveiled its brand-new Surface Laptop. The device employs various design flourishes intended to set it apart from the crowd, but its use of a material called Alcantara stands out.
Alcantara has been around for over forty years, and over that time it’s become well established as a luxurious, high-quality fabric. By understanding where the material came from, and what its strengths are, we can see why Microsoft chose to make it such a prominent part of its new laptop.
It came from Japan
The story of Alcantara starts in Japan, in a lab belonging to multinational synthetics specialist Toray Industries. In the mid twentieth century, the company enjoyed a period of prosperity because of its successful creation of a process for creating nylon, shortly after the material was invented by Wallace Carothers of DuPont in 1935.
However, by the 1960s, Toray Industries’ best and brightest were once again in search of the next great advance in synthetic fibers. Working in conjunction with Dr. Toyohiko Hikota, a scientist named Dr. Miyoshi Okamoto discovered a method of creating ultra-fine fibers that maintained a continuous filament type, something that previous attempts by other companies had failed to accomplish.
The result was microfiber, a material that’s still used to this day for athletic apparel, cleaning cloths, and lots more. Okamoto continued his research, using a scanning electron microscope — then a cutting-edge piece of technology — to analyze leather and suede. The result of his efforts was a synthetic substitute dubbed Ultrasuede, which was marketed by Toray as “what nature had in mind.”
In Robert Kanigel’s book on synthetic materials Faux Real, Okamoto recalled hearing Ultrasuede described as “the biggest invention since nylon.” It would certainly prove to have an enormous impact on Toray’s business interests outside of Japan.
Two years after its invention in 1970, Toray entered into a joint agreement with Italian oil and gas company ENI. The process that spawned Ultrasuede was repackaged as a luxury material called Alcantara, to be manufactured in Italy.
Alcantara was basically the same product as Ultrasuede, but re-branded. The two materials were meant to co-exist, with the former’s Italian manufacture intended to establish the material as a luxury item. That simple marketing decision added a dimension to Alcantara’s appeal. Okamoto was later presented with the Leonardo award, in recognition of Alcantara’s contribution to the worldwide appeal of products made in Italy.
Fit for purpose
“This is a product imported from Italy,” said Microsoft’s devices chief Panos Panay as he expressed his admiration for Alcantara at the company’s education event on Tuesday. “It’s premium, it’s durable, it stands the test of time.” Clearly, the Alcantara brand established decades ago remains alive in well, and that’s true because of a consistent effort to place it in high-end, cutting-edge products.
“This is a product imported from Italy. It’s premium, it’s durable, it stands the test of time.”
From the outset, Alcantara was envisaged as a luxury brand. The fashion industry was responsible for some its first applications shortly after its conception, as it was used in various types of high-end accessories. Its unique feel made the material stand out from anything else available at the time.
However, it was soon adopted by another industry that always has a need for opulent materials. Automotive manufacturers have been using Alcantara in cars for decades, with Fiat and Audi emerging as early adopters in the late 1970s. The material’s carefully curated luxury status means that it’s right at home in a top-of-the-line vehicle, though it also offers certain practical advantages.
The suede-like texture of Alcantara offers a subtle grip and hold. This is an attractive trait in the context of a car interior, as many drivers appreciate the material’s ability to maintain their position in their seat when compared to the more slippery feel of leather.
The way that Alcantara feels to the touch provides similar benefits to the Surface Laptop. The contrast between the smooth surface of the keys and the material that surrounds them will help users maintain their tactile perception of the keyboard, even if they’re looking at the display.
Another key strength of Alcantara is its ability to resist stains. The Surface Laptop will be subject to spilled coffee and greasy fingers, but its anti-absorbent properties will help stop discoloration because of normal usage. Only the toughest stains are likely to adhere.
Panay spoke extensively about the hard work his team put in to ensure that the device maintained a smooth, sleek exterior at the reveal of the Surface Laptop. Alcantara contributed much to this effort, particularly when it comes to the laptop’s speaker system.
“We were able to invent a technology to integrate the speakers underneath the keyboard”
Most laptops require visible speaker holes to deliver audio to the user, but that’s not the case when it comes to the Surface Laptop. “We were able to invent a technology to integrate the speakers underneath the keyboard, use the fabric to push the sound through, and then push it out the keys to push it right at you as you’re creating,” Panay said at the event.
It’s clear that Panay and his Microsoft cohorts have a great appreciation for Alcantara. And with that in mind, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see the material continue to serve as a prominent component of the Surface line’s design going forward.
The Surface Laptop isn’t the first time that Microsoft has employed Alcantara in its products. The Signature Type Cover released for the Surface Pro 4 also utilizes the material in a very similar manner. As the Surface line continues to expand, common materials will offer a sense of cohesion and continue to establish its aesthetic identity.
Branded materials are often used in consumer devices, because they can instill a sense of premium quality. Take Corning Gorilla Glass, for instance — it’s used in a host of different smartphones, tablets, and wearables, and it’s frequently listed as a selling point for these products. Even if they’re not aware of the tangible advantages Gorilla Glass holds over regular glass, consumers have been trained to recognize it as a premium component.
As detailed by Panay on Tuesday, Alcantara does provide several practical benefits to the Surface Laptop. However, those same design choices could have been executed with another material. Alcantara kills two birds with one stone, reaffirming the system’s status as a luxury device.
Microsoft isn’t targeting users on a budget with its Surface devices, and that remains true of the $999 Surface Laptop. Instead, the company is looking to court customers who are willing to spend a little extra on a system that boasts top-tier design and high-end materials.
Microsoft’s decision to employ Alcantara serves as a shorthand for the Surface Laptop’s billing as a luxury laptop, and a competitor to similarly ‘deluxe’ systems like the MacBook Pro. The company could just have easily wrapped its new device’s keyboard in Ultrasuede — but result perhaps wouldn’t have seemed quite as lavish.