How Microsoft's Surface tablet was born

The Surface team's general manager, Panos Panay, reveals to the Verge how Microsoft's iPad rival moved from concept to actual product.

Microsoft's Surface tablet.
Microsoft's Surface tablet. Microsoft

Microsoft faced a few key challenges in developing its Surface tablet, according to team leader Panos Panay.

In an interview with the Verge, Panay offered some tidbits detailing the tricky evolution of Surface. The Surface team's general manager said that Microsoft had two goals in mind for Surface RT, code-named Georgetown: news of the tablet couldn't leak beforehand and it had to be ready to ship when Windows 8 launched.

Right from the start, Microsoft wanted to try to build the tablet without upsetting its Windows 8 OEM partners, Panay said. Whether it achieved that goal is debatable.

Certain companies, such as Acer and Lenovo , expressed concerns that Microsoft would be competing with its own partners. But Microsoft simply didn't want to rely on other hardware vendors to create the type of device it had in mind.

Toward that end, Panay described the concept behind Surface in one sentence: people should be able to do more with it than they can with competing tablets. The major goal was to keep the device thin and light. Microsoft initially played around with rounded backs and edges before settling on a flat back and angled edges so that users didn't feel as if they might drop the tablet.

Protecting Surface with the right type of cover also was a challenge.

"We stressed out about it," Panay told the Verge.

The cover had to be very thin and able to protect the tablet's surface. The team decided on using a removable keyboard cover that could stick to the screen via a magnet. After designing a range of prototypes, the group finally came up with the Touch Cover and the Type Cover, each one developed by different people.

The original goal was to create a cover no thicker than 4.5 millimeters, but the team actually got it down to just 3 millimeters. One goal for the future is to offer the cover in a greater variety of colors, which Panay said will happen.

Work on the Surface Pro tablet, code-named Georgetown X, began three months after Surface RT. Asked why Surface Pro took so long to appear, Panoy said it was a matter of people, availability, and time.

The goal behind Surface Pro was to create a tablet with the speed of a computer, incorporating a touch-screen, PC, and stylus on a single device.

The team's work is far from over as it develops future generations of Surface.

"When I say generations, not just one, we have the teams at full speed and loving what they're building and seeing," Panoy said. "I think things just keep getting better, just hopefully what you'd expect from us."

Microsoft may be proud of Surface. But the tablet still faces an uphill battle trying to win over customers and market share.

Initial demand for the Surface Pro was higher than expected, prompting Microsoft to gear up more shipments to retailers . But Surface RT isn't faring as well. And the disparity between the two versions may be part of the problem.

"Microsoft's decision to push two different tablet operating systems, Windows 8 and Windows RT, has yielded poor results in the market so far," Tom Mainelli, IDC's research director for tablets, said in a statement today. "Consumers aren't buying Windows RT's value proposition, and long term we think Microsoft and its partners would be better served by focusing their attention on improving Windows 8. Such a focus could drive better share growth in the tablet category down the road."

 

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