Microsoft’s product chief says you can’t make great software if you don’t make hardware

Microsoft’s newest Surface devices.
Microsoft’s newest Surface devices.
Image: Microsoft
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Microsoft introduced an array of offerings at an event in New York today, among them innovative new devices, solid upgrades to existing products, and completely new hardware categories that it hopes will reflect the future of computing.

On stage much of the time was Panos Panay, who as product chief looks after just about everything the company makes, from Xboxes to Surface laptops to the HoloLens. Today he introduced what could be Microsoft’s first foray back into the smartphone market (the Surface Duo) since CEO Satya Nadella killed its phone line in 2016. By the end of next year, Panay said, the company will be introducing two new devices, the Surface Neo and Duo, both of which will feature two touchscreen displays.

Quartz sat down with Panay after the event to discuss everything that was announced.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

What are you most excited about that you announced today?

The product line this holiday is extraordinary. I think the idea that we have choice for our customers and fans, that’s a huge deal for me. There’s not one product, they’re all important, kinda my kids in a way; I love them all. And I sway towards favorites, don’t get me wrong. But I use them all. It’s been a bit tiring of a year, because I’ve been having to move through so many devices. Usually we ship one or two things, and so using them all has gotten a bit challenging. I don’t use the metal [Surface Laptop], I use the fabric, for example, when I’m using a laptop. I love [the Surface] Pro X, but I also love Pro, so I go in between the two all the time, so it just depends. But I like the idea that our customers have a choice. That’s probably my favorite thing. 

If you look seven years ago: “Here’s the one product, what do you think?” It was binary—do you like it or do you not like it—and that was it. Now, it’s which one, what color, what silicon, what material, what form factor? That’s number one for me. 

I think the team’s been pretty pumped about it. We were talking about how complex the keynote was going to be, because there was so much information to deliver in 90 minutes. And when I was sitting with the team, we were practicing three nights ago, going through if this was too much, and how do I tell the right story. And we were sitting there and the team goes to me, “Well Panos, the complexity of telling the story was about a quarter of the complexity to build it all.” We’ve been pushing to build all of these products for two years—some longer. 

Why create two Surface tablets for this holiday season?

We looked it as, the Pro line is incredibly successful, the customers want it, and they need consistency. There’s a couple ways to think about it: There’s these commercial set of customers, which is a massive part of our business, and that consistency in the platform means a lot to them. And then you have a consumer customer who loves [the Surface] Pro, and that consistency matters to them, but we also wanted to push the boundary a little bit on the cutting edge. I really wanted to push forward for our fans, and say, “OK, you want the thinnest thing possible, you want reinventing of the product from the inside, the silicon.” We’re pushing forward for the tech enthusiast, but also the mobile person that wants to be connected all the time with the thinnest, lightest possible device with all that screen. 

So, you had what is the core product line, which needs to continue to be great, and then if you’re a mobile-tech enthusiast or professional and you wanted to have the thinnest and lightest, we designed them both. And we’ll evolve them both. 

And the strategy for calling one 7 and the other X (or 10 in Roman numerals)?

Definitely we wanted to separate the line. [With the X] this not the 7, this is the beginning of a new chipset, the beginning of a new architecture. You don’t go to a store to buy a generation or an architecture at all, you look at the product you love and you buy it. And they’re distinct, so let’s name them distinctly, so that was important to me. I didn’t want to infer from [the X] that I’ve been working on it for seven generations, and there’s a lot in there to say it’s the same. 

Unlike the laptop. You look at Surface Laptop 3 and you go, “Well, it’s pretty much generationally the 13-inch product made larger, at the end of the day.” 

But you never get naming right, I’ll tell you. It feels like maybe the most complex thing we do. 

We looked at Surface Neo and Duo and all the names it could’ve been, and then we just said, what is it? And we ended up there. Neo means “new form factor,” and we really believe it. 

Do you consider the Surface Duo to be a companion to Neo then?

Absolutely. There’s a lot of ways to think about it. At the end of the day, the interaction models on both will feel very similar. But on [Neo], Windows is the right OS for it, and Android is the right OS for [Duo]. Why? Because [Android] has thousands of apps in your pocket.

But at the API layer, or how you think about the hinge works, and how we recognize it, and how the developer takes advantage of it, they’re the same. And so, there’s a lot of consistency, but of course, one’s a companion to the other. But Duo is a companion to any Surface device, that’s the way I would think about it. 

What was the rationale behind showing off devices that won’t be available for a year?

I was scared, I even said that onstage—it wasn’t scripted. Literally as I was looking up at the specs, I was thinking, “maybe I shouldn’t say that.” I was really nervous about it. 

But it’s because we need developers. And actually I want the world to see what I think the new form factors are going to be, before we run into the wrong one too fast. 

Developers have the opportunity to make magic. They’re not ready today for developers—they’ll be ready in a couple months, and we’ll get them out there, and they’ll be pretty awesome. 

Are these reference designs for the future?

I hope the world grabs on and says, “Got it. I get how two screens light up the mind, how two screens can make you more creative and productive, let’s go.” I would love it if every company looked at this is and said let’s do this, let’s go make people as creative as possible. 

It’s impressive how in less than a decade Microsoft has gone from solely a software company to making some well-designed hardware. How much of a strategic imperative are devices for Microsoft, rather than a nice-to-have?

I think as Satya said today, it’s hugely strategic. I would think about it not as a software thing or a hardware thing, but as a product thing. I think if you’re going to make great software, you have to make hardware. That’s a product. That’s just way the world world is moving, and how everything comes together. 

And so the elegance of something you pick up, and whether it’s that phone you use, or anything else, it’s a product. You can celebrate the hardware or software all you want, but the elegance—what level of quality, of design, of emotion you can expect out of a piece of hardware—that matters. You have to do these together, or you can’t get to this. You just can’t. 

So why then go with Android on the Duo?

Well, it was about partnering with Google to make a great product with them. But there’s a lot of software we built as well. So Microsoft 365 on that experience is huge—how Office lights up on two screens, how it lights up on Android, how Outlook lights up on Android, how you’re most productive on two screens—I feel so good about where the application layer is going. [Microsoft] Edge on the product is incredible. So Microsoft lights up on it, and so when I say it has the best of Microsoft on it, that’s a huge deal, but we also want the best of Android. We’re partnering with Google right now, and my partner over there was texting me during the product conversation—we kept Duo pretty tight between our two companies—because we felt it really could be a big moment. 

You were hesitant to refer to Duo onstage as a phone, but that’s what people are going to call it. 

That’s fine, they can call it whatever they want, but I really want it to be a productive device. I want it to be the thing you get because it can do the things you want. 

But is there any hesitation internally at Microsoft about getting back into the phone industry? 

I don’t think that’s what the conversation is at all. We’re in the Surface business. It’s a big hardware business for us right now—I think publicly we reported at $5.7 billion—we’re growing. It’s the business we’re in. I don’t think of it as a phone business, and I don’t think Satya does either. We look at it as a Surface. 

It’s not about calling it a phone or not—I don’t care about that—what I care about, is that people believe it, buy it, and use it to be more productive.