Microsoft Corporate VP of Surface Panos Panay shows off the new Surface Pro 3 during an event on May 20, 2014.
The absence of something is often as telling as its existence. When Microsoft failed to unveil the rumored Surface Mini on Tuesday and instead delivered a 12-inch giant in the Surface Pro 3, one thing became crystal clear: Microsoft is focused on productivity first and the desires of lean-back consumers second.
Would it be accurate to characterize Microsoft as a productivity company? I asked a rather drained Panos Panay. Microsoft’s corporate VP for Surface had finished delivering “the goods,” so to speak, over an hour earlier, but was now caught in a maelstrom of mini-interviews about the new Surface Pro 3 tablet-laptop hybrid and what it means for Microsoft as a whole.
SEE ALSO: Hands On With the Surface Pro 3
“Yeah,” he answered without hesitation. “I think you have to characterize it that way. I don’t want to be shy about that. For sure, I think Satya’s [Nadella, Microsoft CEO] direction is to push us to be the most productive company. I think the words are, ‘We are obsessed with it,’ and I think we should be. That’s what people expect, and I’m proud to follow that direction.”
It’s not exactly what people were expecting, though. Despite the steady drumbeat of speculation that Microsoft would enter the 8-inch tablet fray and maybe deliver a pure consumption device, one without a hint of the dual Windows 8 interface (Desktop and Metro), Microsoft went in the opposite direction. It took my advice literally and went big instead of going home.
Why does size matter?
Going bigger “is a big deal,” Panay said. He explained that the Surface Pro 3, a tablet with laptop specs (Intel core i3-to-i7, up to half a terabyte of storage, a digital pen) ties directly into the productivity strategy. “You want to key into what Satya is saying, ‘We want to be the company that helps you do more so you can be more.’”
The Surface Pro 3, Panos said, "is born for that.”
Microsoft's use of the phrase “small gathering” in its event invitation won’t be brushed aside so easily, though. Some wonder if Microsoft made a last-minute course correction and pulled the Surface Mini weeks or days before the big presentation. (The New York Times reported as much on Tuesday, citing an anonymous source.)
Panay did not discount the idea that Microsoft is still working on a Mini.Panay did not discount the idea that Microsoft is still working on a Mini.
“When you talk about other products, it’s a fair ask. ‘Where is the small device?’ ‘Where is the next device?’” he said. “We are working on so many things right now. It’s kind of hard to … for me as a product maker, I kind of sit back and go, 'Ah, that’s interesting.'"
Panay also revealed a bit about how Microsoft now sees itself. Yes, it just made a big splash some weeks ago with the long-awaited Office for iPad, but it also sees itself as a hardware company, one that drives a tons of innovations. "Some ship, some don't," Panay said. "You have to make sure from a feature to a device category, you are for sure investing, and I think that’s what we’re doing.”
Others, like Steven Bathiche, who manages the Applied Sciences Group at Microsoft, didn’t seem disappointed. Bathiche is a 15-year Microsoft veteran and has been on the Surface team since day one. He walked me through all the subtle yet important changes between the original Surface Pro and the Surface Pro 3; there’s only one layer, the glass, in front of the LCD, for example. He also made it clear that this is the product that matters.
“Everything we've done up to this point is manifested in this product. This is our best device — we're super proud of it,” Bathiche said.
There are rumblings, though, that Microsoft is not only focusing on productivity-oriented devices, but forfeiting the consumer tablet war. Panay insisted that there is still a place for the Windows Surface 2 device, especially since $499 is a considerably different price and value proposition than the $799 Surface Pro 3.
One product, one purpose
Whether Microsoft ever intended to introduce a Mini on Tuesday, the single product focus may have benefited the company. It gave clarity of purpose to Nadella and Panay’s presentation. One product, one big idea: a no-compromises laptop replacement. That’s what the Surface Pro 3 is, after all.
Panay drove that position home when he measured, literally, the Surface Pro 3 against a MacBook Air (the Surface Pro 3 is lighter). You don’t put a tablet on a scale opposite a laptop unless you’re trying to position your tablets as something else.
Where do you put a Surface Pro 3 in a Best Buy store — with the tablets or the laptops? I asked Panay.
“When you walk into Best Buy, hypothetically, you’re going to find this product sorted with tablet and with the laptop because it can serve both purposes,” he answered. Microsoft sees the Surface Pro 3 as an actual combination of two devices — tablet and laptop — but at a price and performance that should not disappoint either customer.
“First off, from a performance standpoint, it stacks right up against the [MacBook] Air,” Panay said, adding that it would be ridiculous to compare it to an iPad. “That’s like comparing a MacBook Air to an iPad.”
Microsoft's core strategy is to help people (students, businesspeople and perhaps consumers) by removing the conflict.
”It’s about making sure people don’t feel buyer’s remorse of, Didn’t I need to buy a tablet? I was told to do it. There isn’t a commercial on TV today that doesn’t tell me to buy a tablet. But at the end of the day, people are still walking in and buying their productive tools. We just take that conflict away.”
The bolder claim, however, is that people can buy just one device. Panay said 96% of people carrying iPads also have a laptop in their bag. Surface Pro 3 is a productivity-based laptop that, when you remove the keyboard, turns into a tablet. So
while $799 (base price) could seem expensive in the world of $499 tablets, Microsoft thinks it’s a bargain compared to paying, say, $899 for an 11-inch MacBook Airwhile $799 (base price) could seem expensive in the world of $499 tablets, Microsoft thinks it’s a bargain compared to paying, say, $899 for an 11-inch MacBook Air and another $300 to $500 for an iPad. It should be noted, however, that $799 only gets you the Surface Pro 3 tablet. If you want the true laptop-like experience, you'll pay an additional $129.99 for the Surface Pro Type Cover.
Microsoft may have its work cut out already. Its early Surface commercials were somewhat obsessed with the way the keyboard clicked into the device. That sound served as the soundtrack for a series of spots. None of them, however, showed exactly what to do with the Surface. More recent commercials have been far more in line with the “productivity” strategy, showing people using them at work, on the road or at school.
Panay said that Microsoft has some ads lined up that illustrate how a tablet can serve in place of a laptop. It's “basically modes of use," he said. "If you can show those modes of use, people catch them pretty quickly in their minds. That will stick with your mind’s eye pretty quickly.”
Does this match?
With Microsoft’s laser focus on productivity, why didn’t an Office for Touch (Microsoft Office designed for Windows 8 touch computers) make an appearance? Like all Surfaces before it, Surface Pro 3 has the horsepower to run full-blown Microsoft Office, but if Apple gets an Office for its iPad, why not a touch Office for Surface?
Panay wouldn’t comment directly on the timing of touch Office or what the Microsoft Office team is working on, but he did say that nothing was more important than making sure the Surface Pro 3 delivered the full power of Office. “Touch-first can be an amazing thing and I’m sure there’s great things in store for the future,” Panay said, “but right now, making sure the full power of Office as they know and love it, as they use it in their productive environments, is what was meant to be on this device.”
But he’s not ruling out the idea of a touch-first version of Office for Surface.
"Touch works pretty well. Getting to the touch-first zone? I don’t know if it’s perfect for this product, but I think over time that marriage will come together, it will be great. When that is, I’m not sure.”
Focus, focus, focus
For Microsoft and team members like Panay, Nadella’s clarity of purpose and strategy is bracing and welcome.
“Clarity through leadership is one of the most powerful tools that’s ever existed on this planet, and that then becomes the ability to drive and make great decisions on your devices and your products. And that’s what we did.” Panay paused and looked at me as I furiously typed on the new Surface Pro 3 and its much-improved keyboard. “That’s why you’re typing on it right now. That clarity is very clear.”
Tags: Microsoft, Surface Pro, Surface Pro 3