Ina Fried

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Microsoft’s Surface: Hiding in Plain Sight

When Microsoft first showed off its Surface tablet in June, it was a surprise to many that the company was entering the computer business.

After all, Microsoft had spent three decades sticking to PC software, letting others make the machines. Even Microsoft’s longtime hardware partners had just a brief heads-up.

But Microsoft had spent the past couple of years laying the groundwork for the device, which hits shelves on Friday, alongside Windows 8 PCs from Acer, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo. At $499, Microsoft is taking direct aim at the iPad with its Surface, but it will also put pressure on all of those longtime PC partners.

So, just how did Surface come to be? Much of Microsoft’s hardware knowledge came from products that were either obscure or of little notice. The company had been building mice and keyboards for decades, but has been expanding its expertise in recent years.

Though no PCs have ever been sold under Microsoft’s brand until now, the company actually has had its hand in the manufacturing and design of several computers handed out at its more recent developer conferences.

Its first venture was a convertible touchscreen laptop built with Acer. That machine, handed out at the Professional Developer Conference in 2009, featured all kinds of connectivity options, and was the first that could run Microsoft’s operating system out of the box without any custom drivers.

A second machine, an Asus tablet, was the first computer of its size to have its screen optically bonded in the way that Surface does.

At last year’s Build conference, Microsoft handed out a custom version of Samsung’s Slate PC. On the outside, it resembled the already-shipping product, but Angiulo notes that Microsoft had made a ton of changes on the inside, cramming in all kinds of additional sensors and connectivity options.

Microsoft also learned from a different Surface. While the tablet bears little resemblance to the first tabletop computer that had that name, Microsoft learned a lot about screen technology when it worked with Samsung on a second-generation table introduced in January 2011. Unlike the first projection system-based table, the second Surface table was a flat touchscreen, optically bonded to its cover.

But despite Microsoft’s long love affair with tablets, the plan for Surface is a relatively new one, dating back only to when Microsoft started planning for Windows 8.

Windows chief Steven Sinofsky believed that the company needed its own hardware to show off the new-look operating system. To head the project, he tapped Panos Panay, a veteran of the company’s hardware unit.

“We started with a blank sheet of paper,” Panay said. Actually, the first real prototype was a bunch of sheets of paper — a notebook that had a cardboard kickstand attached with a screen.

From there, the team fashioned all kinds of prototypes, fabricating hundreds of 3-D-printed plastic models before settling on the final design. Even after showing off the machine on June 18, the team made at least one significant change to the device’s outer casing.

While the design evolved over time, many of its key specifications were dictated by decisions early on. One such move, for example, was the decision to keep a full-size USB port on the device.

Including the port meant that the device could only be so thin, but Panay said that Microsoft wanted to keep its heritage, as well as compatibility with millions of USB devices.

“A USB port is part of our brand,” Panay said. And, beyond that, it’s a pretty darn useful means of connecting to cameras, printers, mice, and all other manner of devices.

“It seems silly to walk away from what we’ve been committed to,” Panay said. Of course, the software it runs — Windows RT — is a break from the past. Surface can run Office in a standard Windows desktop, but that’s the only legacy application it will run. All other programs must be the new-style Windows 8 applications — many of which have yet to be developed.

From a culture standpoint, Panay said the key was not just assembling a bunch of smart people, but getting ones that bought into a common vision. Just having a bunch of brilliant people often guarantees lots of conflicting opinions.

“If we didn’t get all our oars in the water and row in one direction, we wouldn’t be here,” Panay said.

Keeping the tablet a secret was somewhat easier for Microsoft than it might have been for other technology companies. Since no one expected a tablet from Microsoft, folks weren’t looking out for it.

The company took basic precautions — not using a Microsoft logo until recently, and not providing more than a couple pieces of the device to any one partner. But the company also decided it didn’t need to hide prototypes inside fake cases, or take other advanced measures.

“There was nobody looking,” Panay said, keenly aware that this was a one-time phenomenon. The team has already increased security in Studio B — the Surface team’s home inside Microsoft’s sprawling Redmond campus.

The company has one more announced product — an Intel-based Surface Pro model running Windows 8, due out in about three months’ time. There are lots of other things in the works, including a rumored phone, but Panay and Sinofsky aren’t talking about those projects.

The duo gush when talking about the initial Surface, though, frequently using words like “perfect” and “beautiful” as they go on about the 200 custom parts, the magnesium case and other features.

It’s the little things, Panay said, pointing out how the Surface can take a video of a meeting, thanks to its rear camera and kickstand. The camera is pointed at a 22-degree upward angle, to offset the device’s tilt. It’s the perfect spy camera, though the company did opt to have a little light indicate when the camera is on.

While Panay hopes the product will inspire others inside Microsoft, as well as the Windows PC ecosystem, his Surface team is playing for the long-term rather than just to light a fire under the computer makers.

“This is not just we are here and then gone,” Panay said.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work