Microsoft’s senior creative director for Surface provided a fascinating inside look at the design and development of the product line during a session at Ignite this week in Chicago. Here’s a summary of the talk.
Sign up for our new free newsletter to get three time-saving tips each Friday — and get free copies of Paul Thurrott's Windows 11 and Windows 10 Field Guides (normally $9.99) as a special welcome gift!
"*" indicates required fields
You can find a video of the session, Design Matters for Microsoft Surface on the Channel 9 web site. In it, senior creative director for Surface Ralf Groene discusses the past, present and future of Surface.
If you’re a car guy like I am—and a VW fan, as I am too—then you’ll enjoy Groene’s comparison of the shift to the new type of PC as embodied by Surface to VW’s changeover from the beloved Beatle to the Golf (which was initially sold as the Rabbit in the United States). The Golf was initially loathed, he said, but as people came to understand its utility (it was a hatchback) and versatility (you could fold the back seats down and expand the storage space), they grew to love it. And the Golf did indeed define a new car category. Sound familiar?
Groene has been working at Microsoft for 8 years and you’ve almost certainly seen one of his early creations, the Arc Mouse: that was his first product for Microsoft. The parallels between the Arc Mouse and the Golf (and Surface) are very clear: as a mouse it has great utility, and because it can fold (or, in the latest incarnation, fold flat) for great portability, it is also very versatile.
Groene was called in to a new project at Microsoft about four years ago. It was called 12, because it was secret, and because there were 12 people on the initial team. He didn’t initially believe that Microsoft would ever carry through with the group’s plan to create new PC hardware. But here we are, three generations of Surface hardware later.
It all started here.
The initial Surface designs were all industrial design models of tablets. But pure tablet designs weren’t all that inspiring, so the team began to experiment. The first addition was a kickstand.
Here’s another, closer, view, which gives you an idea of how rough these early designs were.
“This was the model that we presented to Steven Sinofksy, who ran Windows, and who was our executive sponsor,” Groene explained. “And this was basically the model that got us funded. We didn’t have a presentation, we just brought this model. And the white cover you see (in the picture above) is a cover that was magnetically held in, and that you could click-in. And the kickstand in one position, very close to the final product … to the angle of the final product.”
There was something meaningful in this core design, Groene said. It wasn’t just a tablet where you could browse the internet, it was more versatile and could be a full PC too. It was a VW Golf.
So why would Microsoft even make this hardware?
As Sinofsky himself later explained in his public statements about Surface, the team saw the product as a “stage” for Windows. The hardware is there to get you to the software as easily as possible. The hardware fades to the back or, in the case of the keyboard covers, can literally flip to the back when you want to interact solely with touch. Likewise, if you’re not using the kickstand, you shouldn’t even know it’s there.
To achieve the final design for Surface, the team rapidly protoyped various designs using 3D printers. This way, they could experiment with different sizes, weights, and designs. They went through “hundreds” of designs, Groene said, and threw away “thousands” of bad ideas.
When the Surface team started work, the Windows team was about six months ahead of them, schedule wise, on Windows 8. So they would print out screenshots of the coming OS and see how it looked on their designs. Intriguingly, some aspects of the Surface design were dictated by the Windows team, including the 16:9 aspect ratio of the screen.
The Surface materials team recommended using magnesium for the products in order to obtain a “watch quality” finish. But the investment of understanding this material was apparently higher than expected, though Groene doesn’t provide any details. But the first magnesium parts looked … “really crappy.”
Groene then flew to China about every month to oversee the injection molding at a tooling shop. This is a difficult process, and kind of an interesting story in its own right, but since it has nothing to do with the design of Surface, I’ll just move past this bit.
From here, the story moves quickly from the first generation of Surface—which in Groene’s concise description, “happened”—to the second. Not surprisingly, they were able to improve Surface using feedback from users as well as information they had learned themselves.
“One of the ideas was for a continuous kickstand,” he said, which debuted in Surface Pro 3. “This insight for multiple kickstand positions, for continuous, we got relatively early. But it was just super-hard to make this part reliable and work in such a small envelope.”
Surface Pro 3 has been a big success for the team, Groene says, and is a refinement of the initial Surface vision, a sweet spot of sorts. The key differences between Pro 2 and Pro 3, of course, are the thinner form fact, the screen, which is now a larger unit with a 3:2 aspect ratio, and the continuously adjustable kickstand.
Surface Pro 3 was so advanced, that Microsoft need to invest in a new manufacturing process. But this came with an additional payoff: the wait times for building a production prototype fell from 10-12 weeks to just two days. This helped them refine the design multiple times, something that had been impossible previously.
Being a stage for the Pen was also very important to the design of Surface Pro 3. And while Microsoft pushes the obvious angle with this device—“the tablet that can replace your laptop”—Groene is clearly just as proud of the device’s utility as a drawing surface.
“It’s all about enabling people to put their toughts down on digital paper,” he said, “insteading of typing it, and doing it the traditional way.”
So what about the future?
Groene didn’t really disclose any specific plans, of course. But he did provide some fascinating insights into what the Surface team thinks about “computers that come from Microsoft.” Yes, it’s all very general. But still interesting.
Surface devices will continue to bridge the divide between personal and work, just as Windows does. They will continue to be premium devices, made of premium materials. They will be tools designed for getting the job done, not pure consumption devices, though people will of course also browse the Internet and perform other consumption activities too.
Surface devices will continue to meet people’s expectations—a USB port, for example, or video-out—even though these additions can hinder the purity of the design. They will continue to be designed to get out of the way and let the content that users are interacting with be the focus.
Surface devices will continue to focus on productivity. They will continue to integrate with a pen. They will continue to be very portable, to offer what Groene calls “schoolbagability.”
Groene didn’t talk schedules either, of course, though he did say that Surface devices shouldn’t ship too closely to the previous generation. I’m not sure what that says about Surface Pro 4, though I think we’re just not getting into a 6 month window during which I expect it to be announced and then launched.
For now, this talk remains a fascinating and rare peek behind the curtain of the Surface team. You should check out the video if you want to know more.