Surface 2 and Pro: The People

On Monday, September 23, 2013, in New York City, Microsoft unveiled the second generation of its Surface line, the Surface 2 (formerly the RT) and the Surface Pro 2. I was lucky to be one of a dozen or so Surface enthusiasts Microsoft invited to the event to share the experiences we’ve had with the Surface since its release a year ago and to get a sneak peak at the new devices. It was nerdvana. And it was extra special for me, because I had just gotten married in Los Angeles two days before. That my wife let me come to the announcement, without first getting an annulment, proved once and for all she is the one. I love you babers!

The day started with a presentation from Panos Panay, the head of the Surface team, during which he outlined the myriad improvements made to the gen 2 devices. After the presentation, we got some hands-on time with both Surfaces and a host of new peripherals. The demonstration space was broken into two sections. One section had functional devices where you could sample both the S2 and the SP2 along with the new Touch and Type covers. RED Digital Cinema and Assimilate were also there demonstrating how they use the SP/SP2 in their movie production workflow, transferring 4K+ video straight from their cameras to the device for on-set footage review. The second section had the devices broken apart so you could see the insides, with Surface engineers there to talk you through the whys and hows of the Surface design and the improvements from gen 1. This is also where the new peripherals were displayed.

I’m not going to go into the details of the new devices in this post but, in short, the new Surface line is a game changer. The Surface 2 is a complete redesign of the RT, not just an incremental upgrade. The Surface Pro, with improved performance and significantly longer battery life, now offers power users true all day mobile computing. The peripherals, ranging from the “chopstick” adapter that turns the Touch/Type Covers into wireless keyboards, to the upcoming Power Type Cover with a built-in battery for extended battery life, to the docking station that officially transforms the Surface Pro into a full power desktop, takes things to another level. But as impressive as the new devices are, even more impressive are the people behind them and their vision.

Mr. Panay set the tone. His presentation was heartfelt and passionate. That he is proud of what the Surface team has accomplished is an understatement. Throughout the 15 hour day, I had the chance to speak with everyone from the head of Surface engineering to the head of Surface marketing, and the message was consistent. If I could sum up their feelings it would be something like, “Yes, we are proud of what we have created, but we know this is just the beginning. With Windows 8, the Surface, and what is to come, we will completely change the way the world looks at computing and help people do things they never before thought possible.”

Perhaps the biggest first step in the “never before thought possible” direction is The Surface Remix Project, with its custom DJ “blade”. Along that same line, Microsoft teamed up with the Art Center College of Design to brainstorm custom blades for a wide variety of uses. Honestly, if you can imagine it, you can probably make a custom blade for it. What custom blade would you like to see for the Surface?

But it doesn’t stop with blades. I think what surprised me most about the Surface team was that they were there to learn just as much as they were to show the new devices. What do you like about the Surface? What don’t you like about the Surface? What features would you like to see next on the Surface? What other ways do you think the Surface could be used? Typical marketing questions, right? Except they were being asked by the head of Surface engineering.

It’s not that he and his team haven’t been asking and answering these questions all along. It isn’t that they aren’t paying attention to feedback on the Internet (they are fully aware of the Surface’s praises and criticisms). For him it was another brainstorming session, with real users in a casual setting, getting honest, unfiltered feedback. Sometimes innovation is sparked by the smallest of ideas. And you can rest assured that the Surface team has plenty of ideas for future releases. I can’t go into details, but I will say that I would be incredibly surprised if you aren’t impressed by gen 3+. Not that gen 2 isn’t itself amazing.

To wrap it up, let me say this. Gadget geeks often get the impression that the people behind the scenes don’t get it, that they don’t care what consumers need and want. But after spending a day with a subset of the Surface team, I can assure you they get it. They know what we need, they know what we want, and they are working hard to create the devices (that we can afford) that will meet our demands and that will shape the future of computing.