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Windows boss on building his first laptop

In an interview, Windows unit head Steven Sinofsky talks about what he learned as Microsoft partnered with Acer to build a laptop to give away to developers.

LOS ANGELES--As a software guy, Windows division president Steven Sinofsky readily admits that he had little idea of all that goes into building a laptop.

Like many at Microsoft, he tended to think of products as done once the software was finalized. During the past couple of months, though, he has gotten a much better idea, as his Windows team went through the process of designing and building a Windows 7 laptop in conjunction with Acer.

Steven Sinofsky, surprised the PDC crowd on Wednesday, announcing that paid attendees would get a free notebook that Microsoft helped design. Ina Fried/CNET

That laptop made its debut on Wednesday, as Microsoft handed out the devices to paid attendees of the Professional Developers Conference here. It's quite a little laptop, built around an 11.6-inch swiveling touch screen that works as either a tablet or traditional notebook.

Sinofsky wanted to give attendees at this week's PDC a computer that would really show off Windows 7's capabilities, including a touch screen and top-of-the-line wireless. Oh, and it should be light. And have a glossy screen. And not cost too much.

"They look at you like, 'what are you building'?" Sinofsky said in an interview with CNET.

Sinofsky said it's kind of like remodeling a kitchen. "You start off by saying I want these cabinets this counter top and this kind of a sink and all of a sudden you've got this kitchen you can't afford and don't have the time to build. That's pretty much the first phase of building a laptop."

In the end, Sinofsky had to make a few compromises, but the process itself was an important one for the Windows team, Sinofsky said. While PDC attendees got the laptops, his team got a better appreciation for the full process of designing and building a Windows PC.

"That was part of the learning, really making sure we can walk in their shoes," Sinofsky said.

The Windows team quickly learned about some of the trade-offs that computer makers have to make, as well as some of the hidden costs. At one point, Sinofsky said, he wanted to cut out Bluetooth in order to add GPS capabilities.

There were two problems with that, though. First, taking off Bluetooth would actually cost money. It was already part of the wireless chipset and the standard chassis had a blue indicator light built-in already, meaning that it would cost more to cover up that light.

And with Sinofsky's ideal laptop already containing multiple flavors of Wi-Fi, Ethernet, wide-area networking and three audio paths, there just wasn't room for GPS.

"They were like, look we're running out of room here," Sinofsky said.

Other things Sinofsky did get. Although most laptops with touchscreens have matte finishes, Sinofsky said "We really wanted a glossy screen."

Sure enough, the PDC has a glossy touchscreen.

That's just a part of what Sinofsky talked about in our interview on Wednesday. Look for more from our chat in the coming days.