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Microsoft retools its productivity vision for the era of tech distraction

Rather than grabbing your attention at will, Microsoft’s new Surface hardware and Windows features aim to help you focus on what matters.

Microsoft retools its productivity vision for the era of tech distraction
Panos Panay [Photo: courtesy of Microsoft]

“I wish you were here with me, Harry, so I could hand the products to you. These really are products that you have to feel—and I don’t mean physically. I mean see, use, touch. And then you get a feeling for it.”

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Microsoft chief product officer Panos Panay is giving me a preview of the company’s new lineup of Surface devices. We’re speaking via voice call, with no supporting visuals, which sounds like the most low-fidelity way conceivable to learn about gadgets whose ambitious industrial design is a principal selling point. But Panay, the designer who has been synonymous with Surface since Microsoft unveiled its first tablets in 2012, exudes passion like few tech spokespeople do. He can do more over a shaky phone line than some presenters manage in person with the products in question in front of them.

As Panay steps me through Microsoft’s news—which it announced today at a press event in New York—I learn that the new Surface models aren’t major departures, designwise, from their predecessors. Instead, the Surface Pro 6, Surface Laptop 2, and Surface Studio 2 are about keeping the line fresh, with component upgrades such as faster processors and (for the Surface Pro 6 and Surface Laptop 2) a new black color option. Microsoft is also applying the Surface brand and aesthetic to a pair of wireless headphones, the company’s first foray into that product category.

From upper left, clockwise, the Surface Laptop 2, Surface Pro 2, Surface Headphones, and Surface Pro 6. [Photo: courtesy of Microsoft]
These developments may all be pretty straightforward, but the fact that Microsoft is unveiling all these products at once is significant in itself. While Surface has grown into a meaningful business for Microsoft—with $1.1 billion in revenue in the last quarter—the company’s cadence of product releases has sometimes been bumpy. Last year, an analyst even speculated that Surface could go away in 2019—scuttlebutt that Panay was forced to publicly dismiss as “tabloid rumor.”

During our chat, Panay confirms that Microsoft has had to learn how to design and deliver multiple products in parallel. “I’m exhausted just talking about four of them at the same time,” he jokes. “It is amazing just how much—humbly—we’ve been able to grow as both a business and as a company. And being able to put so many different groups across the company together to focus on shipping this many products.”

Surface Pro 6 [Photo: courtesy of Microsoft]
Panay emphasizes that not changing a device’s outsides is a major undertaking when you’re making major revisions to its insides. The Surface Pro 6, for example, doesn’t tamper with the signature Surface Pro elements, including a 12.3-inch display, 165-degree kickstand, pressure-sensitive pen, and optional click-on keyboard. But the more powerful the processor, the tougher it is to keep that package portable. “You don’t want to make it thicker—every single micron mattered in the product,” Panay says. “The weight had to be similar or less, which is what we pushed for. We were able to increase the performance by adding a quad-core processor to it.” Microsoft says that the new model is 1.5 times faster than the Surface Pro 5, while retaining battery life of up to 13.5 hours for local video playback.

As usual, Panay says that Microsoft is trying to design hardware that people will be proud to own, and isn’t afraid to lavish praise on the results. “You can feel its elegance—-it almost feels timeless now,” he says of the new black-finish Surface Pro. But maybe even more than in the past, he also stresses that the goal of Microsoft hardware is to let the company’s customers delve into using Microsoft software—namely, Windows 10, as well as productivity tools such as Office—without disruption. He describes the Surface Laptop 2 as “muted and quiet” and says it aims to “become the essence of you getting into your flow . . . and never coming out of it.” The notebook’s full-travel keyboard, he adds, offers “one of the best typing experiences you’ve put your hands on.” (He doesn’t need to mention widespread dissatisfaction with the keyboards on recent MacBook models to score a point against the competition.)

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Surface Laptop 2 [Photo: courtesy of Microsoft]

“The preciousness of time”

Of course, helping people focus on getting stuff done has been core to Microsoft’s vision of itself for decades. But how it expresses that aspiration is a moving target. Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s corporate VP for modern life and devices, has seen a lot of that evolution during his 26 years at the company. Last year, he took a three-month sabbatical; when he returned, colleagues asked him what the highlight of his time off had been. “Ironically, as I stopped and reflected, the big thing for me above all else was being able to be in that moment with my family or my friends and not be distracted by a beeping phone saying, ‘Hey, go get to this,’ or ‘get back to something else,'” he explains. “It just brought to life for me the preciousness of time.”

Yusuf Mehdi [Photo: courtesy of Microsoft]
In other words, technology’s increasing ability to keep us connected, whenever and wherever, is not an unalloyed blessing. “We now have this complete blurring of work in life,” Mehdi says. “That’s led to a feeling of always being on, our customers are telling us, and the pressure that comes with that.”

Mehdi says that this intermingling of our professional and personal selves—and the challenges thereof—really started to matter when the smartphone became a mainstream productivity tool, and big companies began to allow employees to use their own phones rather than foisting some corporate-sanctioned model on them.”I guess it’s like somewhere between three to five years ago it happened in earnest,” he estimates. “Maybe a little earlier.”

You can quibble about that timeline: Many companies began recalibrating themselves for the “bring your own device” age sometime around the beginning of this decade. Moreover, the demarcation of life’s boundaries has been eroding for ages. Back in 1994, a classic 1994 AT&T commercial showed a guy using a tablet to send a fax from the beach—a scenario that was supposed to be cool and futuristic.

Still, Mehdi is far from the only tech exec who’s concluded that products should increasingly acknowledge that there’s such a thing as being too connected. Notably, both Google and Apple have built new features into their mobile platforms to counterbalance the smartphone’s unparalleled ability to intrude upon meaningful human interaction. Microsoft, no longer a player in smartphone operating systems, can’t do anything comparable. What it can do is to bring its own approach to addressing some of the same overarching issues by thinking of them in terms of productivity.

In May, at its Build developer conference, the company offered a sneak peek at Your Phone, a new Windows 10 feature designed to let you get at some of your smartphone’s functionality—such as text-messaging capability and photo storage—from a Windows PC, thereby allowing you to accomplish tasks without juggling devices. Arriving as part of this month’s Windows 10 update, Your Phone is meatiest if you’ve got an Android phone, since Google’s mobile operating system allows Microsoft deeper access to system functions than Apple’s more locked-down iOS.

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“On Android, we can do a lot of very rich things,” Mehdi acknowledges. But he adds that Microsoft can bring some of its vision of undistracted productivity to iPhone users as well, especially since the company offers some widely used iPhone apps, such as Outlook Mobile and the SwiftKey keyboard.

Surface Studio 2 [Photo: courtesy of Microsoft]
Making Windows work well with smartphones isn’t just about eliminating distractions; Panay says that it can help Microsoft sell more hardware by eliminating a lingering suspicion among consumers that a Microsoft tablet or laptop must not work very well with a phone running someone else’s operating system. “A lot of our customers talk to us about that,” he says. “They literally say, ‘Hey, should I buy a Surface? But I have an iPhone!’ I really want to dispel that myth.”

Microsoft would presumably be happy to exchange our reality for an alternate one in which Windows is widely used on phones and it has greater ability to stitch together multiple devices into one experience. Then again, the ongoing vitality of the PC as a productivity-centric device—long after pundits predicted its demise—gives the company plenty of opportunities to help people combat tech distraction. Maybe even some that other companies don’t have, given that PCs are still likely to get our undivided, extended attention rather than be something we check 80 times a day, often for a moment or two at a time. Mehdi even talks about the possibility of using notifications, not to divert users’ attention, but to help them get into the groove—such as encouraging people to take care of a mundane task such as correcting typos in Word, which Microsoft research shows is a good way to steel yourself for the aspects of a writing project that require heavier mental lifting.

“We’re just really excited about this new era of personal productivity,” he says. “What it means for people and what it means for us as a company.”

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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