Just after Microsoft unveiled a number of new Surface gadgets on Wednesday, News time sat down with Microsoft devices boss Robin Seiler to talk about the company’s latest products and its hardware strategy moving forward.
Among the highlights of Microsoft’s new offerings: the dual-screen Surface Neo and Surface Duo, set for release next holiday season. The company also unveiled the two-in-one ARM-based Surface Pro X, the Intel-powered Surface Pro 7, wireless Surface Earbuds and more.
The new Surface models come amid a hot streak for Microsoft’s devices business — Surface revenue is up around 14% year-over-year in the most recent quarter, reaching $1.35 billion. But they also arrive amid increase competition, particularly from Apple’s iPad lineup and its newly redesigned tablet operating system, iPadOS.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
News time: There were a lot of unexpected surprises for attendees and viewers, like the Surface Neo and Surface Pro X, but also some more traditional updates to existing Surface devices. In your opinion, what would you say the most interesting announcement was?
Robin Seiler: Our goal with the Surface portfolio was to provide a range of devices, so no matter what you’re looking for you have a way to be creative. I’ve talked to customers quite a lot, and different customers get excited by different products. For example, with the Surface Pro 7, the only exterior changes we made were adding USB-C and the studio mics. Our commercial customers get excited by that because they want as little change as possible in form factor, as they have it integrated into their office environment. Of course, we’ve doubled the performance, but other than performance, it’s that lack of change that they get excited about.
For the Surface Laptop 2’s new anodized aluminum top, it’s the same thing. Our commercial customers love this product as well, but some in some environments need the ability to sterilize, and so they need something that they can easily wipe down. So sometimes maintaining is just as important as change.
And then every once in a while you have to push a category forward, which is what [the] Surface Pro X does. The Surface Pro X is the one that I use every day.
News time: So the Surface Pro X and its Microsoft SQ1 chip are a little different from other Surface laptops, both internally and externally. During the event, I noticed some interesting phrasing surrounding the Surface Pro X and its ability to run “the full power of Windows,” and “the apps you love,” which makes me wonder about any differences between, say, my Windows 10 PC and the Surface Pro X. How do these differences affect the overall experience between the two?
Seiler: From all of our conversations with customers and from all of the data we have, we understand what we believe what our Surface customers do: Large amount of browsing, large amount of Office, sometimes games. So it depends on what you do. Any 32-bit, or any ARM-optimized app will run beautifully.
If you’re using 64-bit apps, like CAD, this isn’t the right product — you want something in the Pro or Laptop category. And so for the person who wants to be always connected, is mobile, and does browsing, Office, and any other app for the most part, the Pro X is the product for you.
News time: I used CAD in high school, I do not miss it.
Seiler: I don’t use CAD, myself.
News time: You all showed off some examples of Microsoft’s work in AI, first with the real-time translation in Office using the Surface Earbuds and then the eye-adjusting software that makes it look like you’re staring at a person instead of a webcam during a video chat. Are those the main benefits of Microsoft integrating AI into the Surface Pro X?
Seiler: There are a few more, but what’s really interesting is when people say “AI,” it’s in large, bold letters. To me, it is just the simple things that you don’t have to think about that just happen. I’ll give you an example: For the first time that you use a pen on a Pro or on a Pro X, when you bring your pen to the screen, we will pair, and then we’ll ask you the most important question: Are you right-handed or left-handed? And the reason that we ask that question is it enables us to optimize for palm rejection. So when I’m using OneNote, I’m dragging my palm all over this glass.
Seiler hands me the Surface Pro X to write and demonstrate the integrated Surface Slim Pen’s AI-powered eraser function, which enlarges its area the faster you move across the screen.
News time: Oh, cool, I love stuff like that.
Seiler: Right! That’s AI, it’s the simple stuff that we take care of. You’ve got great handwriting.
News time: Thank you! I’ve been wondering about today’s Microsoft, and what makes it different from the Microsoft in the past that’s tried and abandoned similar projects — I’m thinking of devices like the Surface RT, Windows Phone, and the long-awaited Courier that ceased development a decade ago.
Seiler: I think that with the history that we have with Surface, both in terms of the hardware, software and how we build it across Microsoft, it creates a much better set of products than what we’ve been able to make in the past. Once a week we sit together with all the engineering leads from across the company and create together. That is a step that helps us not only understand our customers, but understand how hardware, software, and AI work together to meet the needs of those customers. And that grounding and that focus I think will continue to deliver.
I take my team, our designers, and our engineers, out on a regular basis just to go sit with customers and watch them. When we build new form factors, and when we come up with new ideas for products, it’s grounded in those conversations. You look at technology trends and you figure out where you can go, and then you look at your customers and you understand how the two meet.
News time: I think Microsoft’s made quality hardware in the past decade, but by comparison, the overall Windows experience feels stuck in the past in terms of how the software interacts with said hardware. Things like the “close” button on a window, for example, are hard to hit with your finger. There’s this hybrid or fusion of interaction methods on Windows — you’ve got the trackpad, your hands, a keyboard, a mouse, a pen, and voice controls. Do you have plans to optimize Windows to take advantage of what’s now become a wealth of interaction methods?
Seiler: So there’s a couple of ways to think about that. And what I would point you to first is what we showed today with Windows 10X, a simplified, touch-first interface. As Windows 10X comes to life for the Surface Neo, we will consistently pull the right pieces back into the rest of Windows as well. We create this circle of learning. Like earlier, when I talked about commercial customers wanting consistency. Some customers need consistency and familiarity. Some need to live in the future. We have Pro devices for that reason. You have to do the same with software. You have to make sure that you don’t jump too far forward that you end up leaving the rest of your audience behind.
News time: Will I be upset if I buy the Surface Pro X while the Neo and Duo come out next year?
Seiler: You know, you could buy both.