Why Microsoft’s Tablet Can’t Fail

Microsoft’s about to release Surface, the most important product it’s made since the Xbox. So why is it freaking out right now? Because it can’t afford to lose another decade.

After stripping us of our cellphones and anything else that can take pictures, a Microsoft employee who does not stop smiling directs us into a blank, white rectangle of a room, where Panos Panay, the general manager of Microsoft Surface, explains that we’re the very first journalists to ever set foot into Store Zero, the model for every Microsoft Store on the planet. We’re there because Microsoft Stores happen to be the only physical locations on earth that you’ll be able to buy a Surface tablet, which is perhaps the most important product Microsoft’s created since the Xbox.

It’s around 6PM and it’s not the first time we’ve been told today — which started when we walked into an auditorium and found Willy Wonka chocolate bars stuffed with golden tickets that read SURFACE in block lettering waiting for us, though my ticket was strangely missing — that what we’re seeing is highly exclusive. That basically no one outside of Microsoft has laid eyes on the things we’ve been staring at, touched the pieces of plastic and metal that we’ve gotten to hold, or breathed the chemical-scented air in the rooms we’ve been led through. Microsoft’s spent the last six hours pulling back the curtain on Surface, revealing how the tablet was designed, how it’s built, the new technologies Microsoft invented for it, and why they think a $500 Windows 8 tablet can be sold to normal people.

“We” in this case is myself and something like 19 other tech writers. You might wonder why Microsoft, after successfully keeping the Surface project a secret for years — this is a rare accomplishment in technology, if you’ve paid attention to Apple leaks over the last couple years — invited 20 highly predatory journalists into a building that’s been locked down for a year, exposing covert workspaces and laboratories littered with confidential information, equipment and technology and the press-shy people making it.

It’s because Microsoft wants us to tell you how deeply it cares about Surface and every detail that went into it. It has to.

****

It’s hard to adequately describe the strangeness and precariousness of the situation that Microsoft finds itself in right now. There are a lot of problems with this Vanity Fair piece, but it does review the relevant low points of Microsoft’s last decade. But TL;DR: the company is in a war for the future of computing, and not quite the one it expected, or hoped, to find itself in. It’s generally agreed that the nearish future of computers for normal people looks something like smartphones and the iPad and maybe Google’s Project Glass. Not Windows, not PCs as we’ve come to know them, and not, well, basically anything else Microsoft has been successful in so far. Microsoft, once the most powerful company in tech, maybe borders on irrelevance. It’s breathtaking.

Windows 8, a radical rethinking and redesign of Windows (at least compared to Microsoft’s traditionally rigid, iterative approach to upgrades), is its attempt to answer nearly every aspect of its existential dilemma at the same time. (The other pieces are Xbox/Kinect and Windows Phone, FWIW.) An attempt to build something that is the past, present and future of computers, all at once: It sort of runs old Windows stuff! It works a lot like an iPad! It’s sort of mostly built for tablets but also runs on regular computers! It is Microsoft’s E V E R Y T H I N G. If Windows 8 fails, it won’t kill the company, but it will raise some serious questions about what the future of Microsoft looks like. It could end up rich but invisible; important to businesses and computing and technology but not, in any immediate way, to normal people.

This is why it built Surface. It’s an “extension of Windows,” explains Panay. Windows 8 is too important to let other companies’ shitty PC hardware screw it up. Even though there are well over a billion PCs running Windows, Surface is the first PC that Microsoft has created itself in its nearly 40 years of existence. It’s a decision of no small consequence — not only because of the massive investments in R&D, equipment, infrastructure, technology and people that went into creating Surface totally in-house — but because Surface represents a fundamental philosophical shift in what Microsoft is.

Xbox is no longer a fluke. Microsoft really isn’t just a software company anymore; it’s an everyware company. Two of its three computing platforms are now products with tightly integrated software and hardware produced by Microsoft itself. And now that Microsoft, the largest software company in the world, has made that shift, it seems clearer than ever that total integration is simply how technology products for the masses are going to be built. So Surface isn’t just the beginning of another new business unit for Microsoft. It’s the beginning of a new era.

***

Windows chief Steven Sinofsky and Surface General Manager Panos Panay. Image provided by Microsoft.

Our hosts for the day are Steven Sinofsky, the head of Windows and in some ways the most important man at Microsoft besides Steve Ballmer himself, and Panay, the man in charge of building Surface. Sinofsky is loose and funny and largely unflappable, at one point pulling out a Surface with four neon green wheels bolted to it to use as a skateboard. But the extraordinary cleanness of his appearance — a closely cropped ring of silver hair that seems almost spraypainted around his very tidy head, crisp jeans and a form-fitting V-neck sweater whose deep lines never seemed to buckle — hint at what I’ve heard it’s like to work under him and his crazyhigh standards. Panay is a blunt-force object, by comparison, a walking 2×4 of intensity. You get the sense that when the father of four commented at the June launch of Surface that “outside of my wife, the Touch Cover is No. 2,” the slip was not entirely Freudian. And while those two indeed delivered the unrelenting candor and clarity they promised about the Surface project, the event was architected in a way that the whole thing felt defensive.

To explain: two years ago, I was invited to step into some of the same laboratories to see how Microsoft’s groundbreaking Kinect was developed. (And less groundbreaking, but still cool, an exclusive look at how Microsoft made the Star Wars Xbox.) And while today is unfolding a lot like that one, there was something different about it: The Microsoft that showed us Kinect and everything that went into it was confident and mostly relaxed. “Hey, why don’t you come over and check out this totally awesome thing we made?” The Microsoft showing us Surface is pretty sure it has made something good — but it’s unmistakably tense and rigid. “Hey, we made this thing. It is cool. You will like it.”

***

Despite a design-led internal coup of sorts, which at the least brought Microsoft’s name back into conversations about design, when most people think about technology and things like design and relentless attention to detail, they think of Apple. If you’ve heard somebody talk about the word “chamfer” in the last month, it’s probably because of this video.

Through videos like this, Apple’s managed to construct a kind of thought monopoly on design and manufacturing sophistication, which is something Microsoft very much wants to change. It wants everyone to know that it GETS design. That it can be, and is, just as fanatical as any other company about these kinds of things. That it, a software company, can build new things. It’s explained at length, and more than once, that the feel and sound of the Surface’s built-in kickstand was laboriously designed and engineered, with three custom hinges — one of which is simply for controlling the sound it makes as it closes — and a pair of magnets, so it clamps shut in a precise way without ever rattling.

There’s a sly reveal at one point that Microsoft actually sent its (well, Foxconn’s) factories scrambling by changing the height of the chamfer by an infinitesimal amount right after the June announcement, just to make it feel better… in the hands. Pains are taken to make sure we know that the stage at the Surface launch was chamfered at the exact same angle (22 degrees) as the edges of the Surface itself, and that the store displays will precisely mirror every angle of the product too. And that there are 180 steps in making the Surface, and over 200 custom parts.

Microsoft refers throughout the day to secret sauce manufacturing processes it’s developed for making Surface that it won’t fully explain for trade secret reasons: The letters on the Touch Cover are laser-etched, the top layer of a colored, Microsoft-developed polyurethane material burned away to reveal a white layer underneath. As we watch a machine diligently blast away at a blank Touch Cover, and letters slowly start to form, it’s remarked that we’re not seeing the much faster, actual process because there’s intellectual property involved that Microsoft can’t share. Microsoft developed a new type of touch sensor technology for Surface’s screen that is sort of like the in-cell touch tech used by the iPhone 5 to produce an incredibly thin display — a fact that received a fair amount of press coverage — but it wouldn’t elaborate on what makes it different. And on top of the Surface, the RF window that lets in the internets is made out of a secret material, different from the rest of the injection-molded magnesium Vapor Mg case. It’s jokingly called “unobtainium.”

All the while, in a room packed with CNC machines that smells vaguely of rubbing alcohol, as a Surface skeleton is being carved out of a block of metal by a high-speed machining center, it’s casually mentioned how CNC machines aren’t super special, an obvious reference to their notoriety thanks in large part to Apple’s marketing for the unibody MacBook Pro.

The only time I’ve heard the word “perfect” uttered more frequently in a shorter span of time is once when I accidentally turned on the TV after some guy threw a baseball that no one hit, or something. Panay calls Surface a “perfect device.” 99 percent of the people in technology do not believe 99 percent of the things they say, so coming out of most people’s mouths, it would sound approximately like this. But you can feel Panay’s belief in every single syllable — even if not a single other soul at Microsoft truly believes in Surface, he does. It’s what allows him to add a second later, totally earnestly and without a hint of cognitive dissonance leaking through, “that perfection comes in tradeoffs.”

The platonic ideal of a tablet — of a device that’s more than a tablet — in the words of the company that claims to have achieved it, is flawed.

Which is the other reason we’re here. For any sense of how radical Microsoft is being in inviting us into its secret laboratories, it is in truth being extremely careful: It wants to explain, in great detail, the tradeoffs that it made in building Surface to pre-emptively cut out the roots of any major points of criticism. And the biggest one is that screen.

At 10.6 inches with a 1366×768 resolution, its pixel density is 148 pixels per inch, notably lower than the iPad’s 2048×1536 retina display, which has a pixel density of 264 ppi. Microsoft is perceptibly more sensitive about this point than perhaps any other aspect of Surface itself, devoting what feels like the biggest chunk of the day to talking about it. We’re lectured for nearly an hour by a Microsoftian Bill Nye the Science Guy about displays, contrast, resolution, modular transfer function and the design envelope of information. And about why the marketing view of the relationship between display quality and resolution — that more dots per inch is more better — the one that Apple’s been semi-successfully able to push in talking about its “retina displays,” is not the entire story. That the just noticeable difference between the Surface’s 1366×768 display and the iPad’s retina display is 3 on a scale of 116, and that the web isn’t ready for super high resolution displays anyway, so it didn’t make sense for Microsoft to make Surface heavier and thicker to get to that higher resolution. We’re shown in a side-by-side demo how the proprietary optical bonding process and new touch sensor technology developed by Microsoft to create the ultrathin, single-layer display means less reflection, which means less glare, which means greater contrast, which means we can see stuff better on the Surface. And yes, the Surface is far less glare-y than the iPad.

But up close, reading, the text still looked sharper and clearer on the iPad to my eye, anyway.

The only thing that Microsoft talks about more than the Surface’s screen is the Touch Cover, which happens to be the center of its first Surface ad campaign. It’s a large part of what makes Surface Surface, and not simply Microsoft’s iPad, or just another Windows 8 tablet from just another hardware manufacturer. It would be dumb to buy a Surface without a Touch Cover. It’s the engine of Surface’s transformations, and what allows Sinofsky to somewhat credibly claim that it’s both the best laptop and the best tablet he’s ever used, while insisting that the device technically belongs to neither category. That’s because with the Touch Cover, Microsoft may have in fact solved the typing problem on touchscreen devices in two ways: You can rest your fingers on the Touch Cover like a real keyboard, and you can edit text with a cursor. And while that sounds like a tiny detail, it’s what makes typing on the Touch Cover feel legit, and why it’s totally believable when Panay, whose background is in building keyboards, promises that anyone will type and edit at full, unhindered speed in 4-5 days.

Microsoft also has to justify the fact that a cover costs $120 when purchased separately. Which is no doubt why it shares details like the fact that Microsoft miraculously was able to make the Touch Cover and its 7 layers fit into only 3mm of thickness, even though its target was a beefier 4.2mm, and that the perfectly calibrated spine and hinge took over a year to develop. Magic is priceless, you know.

The Surface launch commercial from John Chu — yeah, the Step Up 2 guy. youtube.com

And Surface may indeed have some priceless magic in it. But the question, ultimately, is whether Microsoft can get people to pay a price for that magic. There’s a giant shadow looming over the launch of Surface and Windows 8: Windows Phone. The first salvo of the new Microsoft, meant to boldly relaunch Microsoft’s mobile efforts, has pretty much been a failure in the market despite being an early hit with critics and having hundreds of millions of dollars spent on marketing it between Microsoft, carriers and hardware partners. (Gartner numbers put its marketshare in the US at just 3.9 percent.) And if you think a back a little harder, it was only three years ago that Microsoft launched the Zune HD, an earlier attempt at producing a totally integrated device that was truly one of Microsoft’s better products, but a complete disaster in the market. Both great products, both bombed. So by far the most outwardly tense part of the day comes when we bombard Sinofsky with questions essentially about how Microsoft plans to get people to buy this thing.

The answers weren’t very satisfying or revealing — big ad campaigns and consumer education! That didn’t work for Windows Phone, and the problem Surface faces is in fact more profound than the one Windows Phone faced. Not only does it have a similar problem in that it doesn’t immediately sell how it could be better than the other things on the market, like the iPad, there’s an inherent point of confusion built into the product. (If it could, I do not think we would’ve been standing in the heart of Microsoft.) Surface runs “Windows,” but it won’t run old Windows apps because it’s running a different kind of Windows, called RT. Yet, another version of Surface, coming in a few months, will run old Windows apps because it’s got a full version of Windows 8. Got all that? Sinofsky explains that you will get that, and that the context of Surface within the greater sphere of Windows 8 will be made totally clear by the titanic marketing strategy Microsoft has planned. The implication he makes is that Surface doesn’t have to talk about Windows 8 in its ads because you’ll have already seen Windows 8 ads and been sold on the fact that you need Windows 8. I would love to believe him, as I have all day, but it’s the one thing he says that does not feel right.

The extent of Microsoft’s caution is fully revealed by the fact that it’s only selling the Surface in its own stores — of which there are only 30 or so, with another 30 pop-ups opening for the holidays — and online. It not only allows Microsoft to carefully manage the experience of anybody buying a Surface, but by narrowing the launchpad so intensely, it also provides a fair amount of insulation from any criticism of Surface’s sales, should they suck terribly. Which might seem like NBD, but given its past problems with Zune and Windows Phone, any perception of weak sales could be poison to Surface. Microsoft is looking for another Kinect, which became the fastest-selling piece of consumer electronics in history.

What’s incredible about the future for Microsoft is that for the first time in a long time, no one knows what that looks like. If Windows 8 and Surface — and to a lesser extent, Windows Phone 8 and Xbox — kill it, we could see a brand new kind of Microsoft, one that’s become relevant again not through show of force, but by simply making good shit. If Surface and Windows 8 bomb, the word “Microsoft” may never carry the same meaning ever again.

Walking out of Store Zero an hour later, I could only think that Surface is going to make some kind of history for Microsoft, one way or another.

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