Exclusive: Microsoft devices guru Panos Panay on making devices that sing

“There’s no question: details matter. The amount of precision in these products absolutely matters. But here’s what’s important about that: The more precious and beautiful your design is, the more it disappears into the background. The more it fades away.”

Panos Panay is as passionate about products as a vinyl collector fussing over his records – how they’re designed, how people use them, how they can change our lives. He’s passionate about Windows, too, the software that powers his creations, but make no mistake: It’s the devices that he loves.

Over the last five years, Panay’s passion has brought to life an entire lineup of products that have helped transform Microsoft into the clear leader when it comes to innovation. The company reinvigorated the laptop world with the Surface lineup, 2-in-1 laptops with soft flexible keyboards that look unlike anything else on the market. Microsoft stuck a flag in the sand two years ago with the mind-bending HoloLens, which does augmented reality in a way nothing has yet matched, and sprang seemingly from nowhere. Last year, the devices group that Panay heads up stunned again with the Surface Studio and the Dial, an entirely new way of interacting with computers.

Microsoft interview Panos Panay
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

At a time when other companies reveal ho-hum product updates as uninspiring as your morning bowl of oatmeal, Panay and Microsoft are putting together banquets, writing recipes for delicacies, and rewriting the basic code on what makes for a Windows device. Bland beige box? Never again. Now it’s platinum and titanium and Alcantara (whatever that is) in colors like burgundy and cobalt blue.

At a New York City event for the launch of the new Surface Book 2 and the Fall Creators Update, Digital Trends sat down with the corporate vice president of devices at Microsoft to talk about the new products, how device meets design, and what the future holds for Surface.

Note: Panay stresses that the Surface lineup is a team effort, and that’s clear even in our one-on-one meeting. Sitting behind him — you can see their headless torsos in the video above — are a handful of other key players. There’s Stevie Bathiche, the floppy-haired distinguished scientist with Microsoft’s Applied Sciences group, whose title doesn’t begin to describe what he does. There’s Ralf Groene, head of Industrial Design with the Microsoft Devices group and the man most responsible for the look and feel of the products. And there’s Pete Kyriacou, general manager of Program Management – one imagines him ensuring that the Surface Book 2 actually gets released on time.

Digital Trends: Tell me about this family of products you’ve developed, because over the course of the past five years, you’ve really built out a whole family.

It’s a beauty and the beast product, that’s how we talk about it

Paos Panay: So excited about it! You have the Surface Pro, it’s the most versatile product on the planet is the way I think about it. It gives you all this battery life in and out of your bag, on and off your lap, the versatility is incredible. You have the Laptop, which is just about design and beauty, and while it brings performance, it really is about when I pull this thing out of my bag, the pride that comes with that moment and beauty, and putting your hands on it is amazing.

And now the Surface Book 2, this performance powerhouse — it’s all about performance. And when you look at those three, whether you want versatility or you want just beautiful design in every piece of intent, light and thin, or you wanted that performance – it’s a beauty and the beast product, that’s how we talk about it, and I get very excited to say that – I think it’s fun to give our customers an option. And I think it’s the right set of options for them, too.

It’s clear that you’re really passionate about design. Are you in the studio with the guys, really honing the shape of things…?

The team, we have a pretty dang good team. We have this incredible diverse set of talent, and I spend a ton of time in there. If you’re into product making, you have to get into the design of these products, for sure. And that’s not just the product, it’s the storytelling, it’s the videos, it’s the detail of everything that’s not on the outside but on the inside from the engineering team. So yeah, I think that I get my time in there, and I’m pretty lucky to do so.

This family of products is interesting for what isn’t in there. The phone products and the Band products weren’t included in the family because they weren’t designed to the same caliber, perhaps. Are you seeing a space to enter into other areas besides just computers?

When you’re innovating and thinking about software and hardware together, and where the future of computing might be, and what the form factors might be, and how this world comes together, you’re always thinking about other things, for sure. Now I’m probably not going to talk about future products or anything, but I will tell you that innovation doesn’t end with the last product you ship, it really starts there.

Especially when it comes to this Mixed Reality thing we’ve been talking about today. A lot of stuff from a lot of partners, but nothing specifically from Microsoft.

I use the filter of: The Mixed Reality work we did in Windows was to coincide with the Book 2 and its launch as well. So these products were built to bring our partner headsets to life just as much as any product, and they’re tuned perfectly with Mixed Reality. It’s important to think about the camera off the back of the device, where you can use the Mixed Reality viewer and really start to integrate the world of Mixed Reality into Surface and bring it to life with the Creators Update, it’s really powerful.

What do you hear from your partners, though, from companies like Dell and HP. Is there pushback? Is there concern that you’re stepping into their space?

We’re going to innovate on the Surface line and we’re going to keep pushing innovation, we push premium products. We want to keep investing, but we want those investments to proliferate across to our partners as well. I think it’s just a great opportunity for the PC market to continue to grow and give customers what they need. Choice is awesome! You can pick one of the three Surface products or you can look at one of our partner products, and depending on exactly what you want to go for, I think having that choice is pretty cool.

There’s no question that the Surface line has done a great job elevating the overall design of the PC market.

Well, we have a lot of passion. There’s no question, Jeremy, there’s no question: details matter. The amount of precision in these products absolutely matters. How the screen comes together and the collective parts seamlessly flow is almost … it’s core. But here’s what’s important about that: The more precious and beautiful your design is, the more it disappears into the background. The more it fades away.

Microsoft Panos Panay interview
Microsoft Surface Book Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

And if we can do that, if we can make these products fade to the background, then it’s just about the interaction model – how your brain, how your creativity flows into the product, and nothing gets in your way, from Pen to Touch to Dial to mouse to keyboard, to Cortana and voice, if you want to mix your interactions, you need to, you don’t want to pause to think about which one you’re about to use. You want your creative brain to flow through. And a big part of that is the design.

If the design flows to the background and the hardware and software come together perfectly, these products will line up. They will light up. And then what happens is the best creation comes out of your heart onto these things, and that’s what’s critical.

What’s neat is to take the time to highlight some of the people that make these things happen.

Yeah, did you feel that today? Because I really want to make sure that … these products are a reflection of the people that make them, they’re not a reflection of themselves. They’re actually a reflection of the humans. And if you believe in people, if you believe in the mission statement, we’re going to empower — you use that word and oh my gosh, it’s so incredible! — people and organizations to achieve more. You take these things, it’s all centered around what? The person. The human. And I think it’s just as important who makes the product as it is who uses the product. I think they’re equally as important. And when that comes together, you have something that’s pretty precious.

Big picture, what does success look like? Is it building better products, is it elevating the market, is it getting happy customers? How do you quantify winning?

“We built this product so people can create the future on it.”

It’s quite simple: Do the people who use these products love them? And if they do, people will buy more of them. And they will love to use them more, and they will create the best possible things we can imagine for this world. We built this product so people can create the future on it. What better than to have the feeling that someone opens your device and makes the future happen? That’s what it’s about, if the people that use our devices love them. that’s what this is all about. And then your best creator comes out, and now we’re in a pretty healthy place.

What’s your go-to? What do you walk around with on a daily basis?

Dang it, don’t do that man! This is not fair! I have multiple teams, they’re all going to watch this interview, and they’re going to say, “What was your answer, P?” Come on!

You can say the newest is always the best…

Microsoft Panos Panay interview
Microsoft Surface Pro Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends
Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends

I can’t. I have four children at home, and I made the mistake once of saying one was maybe younger or older or … I’ve learned my lesson. What I will tell you is this: I think all four products, from Studio to Book to Laptop to Pro, they all live in my life. And they all live in ways that I’m blessed to be able to test and use and move from product to product. I love them all. Like I really do. This is the thing.

Will I probably be using Book 2? Maybe? Kinda? I don’t want to upset the team, I don’t want to upset the other kids! But probably. I’m probably jumping in. The Surface Book 2 15 inch? This transforms the desktop and laptop into one device, I can game at night … it’s a pretty extraordinary product.

As someone who’s been carrying around a Surface Book, I appreciate the little tweaks that have been made. The design looks very similar, but I understand that it’s been completely rethought under the hood.

“It would have been a problem if we had said, ‘Whoa, we gotta change everything.’”

I think it’s important to not rush from one design to the next, you want your designs to feel and be timeless. It would have been a real problem if we had looked at this product and thought, “Whoa, we gotta change everything.” But we did change the whole product, if you will, from the inside out, and that was important. We removed the fans, it’s a fanless product. It’s a quad-core Intel CPU, it’s got the GTX 1050 Nvidia part – I mean the whole thing’s been redesigned.

But it hasn’t lost the essence of what it’s supposed to be. It’s three times more powerful than the previous Book and it has 17 hours of battery life – like that’s crazy! And so, by virtue of the performance of this machine, we shouldn’t be having this conversation.

The aesthetics of the product had to stay consistent, that was part of this timeless design ethos that our design team drives, but the performance had to evolve if we’re going to help people create the future.

You’ve talked a lot about how the Surface team has pulled together different aspects of Microsoft, that the software team and the hardware team are working in concert. But what I’m curious about is where Mixed Reality fits in, because it feels like a new project that maybe hasn’t been fully integrated.

Maybe I’m not projecting it right. Think about Surface Book. I’m going to give you the very simple example of the camera off the back and how tuned that is and how perfect that had to be to bring the Mixed Reality viewer to life. We could have very easily removed that camera, could have treated it like a normal laptop. But that versatility of that product, the Mixed Reality viewer, to come take that top off and move with it – that’s an integral part of our designs together. We are one team.

“Mixed Reality is going to sing. It’s going to SING. It’s going to come to life.”

Same thing with the performance of this product, how we tuned it to bring Mixed Reality to life on the product. So if you’re going to use one of our partner headsets on this product, it’s going to sing. It’s going to SING. It’s going to come to life. (Actually I’m using one at home right now. I’m not going to tell you which one, so don’t ask.)

But I absolutely love it and that was part of the design intent. And keep in mind, the same Devices team that builds the Surface builds the HoloLens. And that is Mixed Reality at its purest form. So when you say that I say, “Whoa, hold on!” I gotta tell you, I gotta tell you everything! We’re completely committed, from the hardware to the software to the silicon and all the way down to the steel. We make our own silicon in those products and that’s the same team that works on these products, as well as Xbox. So that’s really core and fundamental, when you think about Xbox and the thermal capacity on the Xbox One X pushing the teraflops that pushes versus the 15-inch pushing teraflops, that’s not an accident.

I love that you have these facts at your fingertips!

But it’s so important to understand how these things come together. If we’re going to move air perfectly through one product, we’d better dang well take that lesson and put it in this one. And that’s what gets you to, somebody says, “Well, how did you get 17 hours of battery life pushing 75 watts off these products with a 1060 GTX in that form factor? Is that possible?”

Well, yeah, it’s possible, because it’s right here!

But it doesn’t come without the learnings of the Xbox One X, it doesn’t come without the learnings of the history of all of these devices to bring that to life. So you think about HoloLens and these products, you think about Xbox and these products, you think about Surface and HoloLens … these all come together. They may not look perfectly symmetrical, because they’re different brands, but they are actually quite in line … and they feed off each other.

So, do you feel that Mixed Reality is an evolution or is that really the future? Is that something that’s going to transform computing?

If you think about Mixed Reality, you liken it to artificial reality, you see quantum computing, you see these ideas that (Microsoft CEO) Satya (Nadella) talks about in his book, come to life. These are real parts of our future, this is interaction models going to the next level, and I think that’s part of what’s happening now. Look at Office today on Surface. We have this product, PowerPoint, and all of the sudden, you can put a pen down or a finger down at any time and interact, and you don’t have to switch modes or slow down or change your thinking. I can put my hand on a dial or my hand on a mouse or my hands on some keys and work through it, or I can speak to my machine … these interaction models are collaborating, they’re working together, they don’t get in your way, and they make you a creator.

Then take the next level of AI, take the next level of Mixed Reality, and what you start to see is the world’s transforming right in front of us. And yeah, it’s absolutely the future.

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