Surface design lead compares early Surface prototype to a 1974 Volkswagen

Image Credit: Channel 9

There was a point in time when many believed the future of Microsoft’s tablets would be reserved for a project called the Courier. In some regards, holdouts and die-hards still think the Courier project is where Microsoft should invest. Due to some missing software and features during the evaluation round, the Courier never made it beyond a concept video and a few prototypes. Instead, Microsoft took some time away from the tablet world (possibly to the company’s detriment) and doubled their efforts on making a solid tablet entrance. After a long wait and potentially billions of lost sales while the iPad ran rampant, Microsoft introduced the Surface.

Coming up on its fourth iteration, the team behind Microsoft’s first ever computing device, spoke at Microsoft’s Ignite Conference about the design process for the tablet/laptop hybrid. In a session titled: Design Matters, Ralf Groene the lead designer on the Surface Design team discussed the early days of the Surface. During his hour-long fireside chat-like panel, he covered the prototyping, conceptualization and the philosophy that went into developing Surface.

German native, Groene begins the discussion of the Surface design by reflecting on the impression the 1974 Volkswagen Rabbit left on him as a child. “One of the things that this car did was, it had roughly the same size as the Beetle, but you could flip the rear seats over and you could turn the read seats into a huge trunk. You could go to the German Home Depot and get your paint buckets or go on vacation and do all kinds of things. It was a radical shift,” he recalls. Groene found it inspiring because the VW engineers thought and brought about a revolutionary design for the times. Initially, the design of the 1974 VW was panned for its look but after a couple of years the car and the design caught on. Groene takes the time to point out that he is an industrial designer and knows very little about programming. With a background in industrial design, Groene believes that ‘beautiful design’ is a result of “thinking about stuff beyond the skin level.”

Image Credit: Channel 9

Groene’s journey with Microsoft product design began in the PC keyboard and mouse group where he produced the highly praised Arc Mouse. Eventually, he was put on a 12-man team intended to make new hardware for Microsoft. Groene questioned the project from the beginning, not knowing what was ahead of the team, but found that the people helping make the mysterious product were almost more intriguing than the actual product itself.

Image Credit: Channel 9

The twelve man team started off making tablets. The first several prototypes were well made but eventually ended up looking like every other tablet out there. As Groene points out early in his presentation, the transformative nature of the 1974 Rabbit came into play, and the team decided,  “Hey let’s go and glue a kickstand onto the product.” The team presented the slapped together kickstand tablet with magnet cover to their executive sponsor and man in charge of Windows at the time, Steven Sinofsky. Without a presentation or a fully developed pitch, Sinofsky bit on the idea of a tablet with a kickstand. Eventually, the team flushed out the philosophy behind the Surface where ‘the hardware is the stage for software.’ As the Surface team was six months behind the Widnows 8 team in development, they adopted the rapid prototyping approach.

“Fail fast to succeed sooner.”

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Moving from concept to reality, Groene, and his team sought to use premium materials, not for name recognition but as a utility. The Surface team ended up with injection-modeled magnesium for a ‘watch quality finish’ for the Surface. Magnesium also happened to be 30% lighter than aluminum and the Surface team thought that would give them a strategic advantage over other tablets at that time. However, the investment in magnesium was enormous, and the first produced pieces were hideous. Groene flew to China every other month to master the inject modeling of magnesium process. The process was so in depth that Microsoft ended up with IP on various injecting processes.

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In 2012, the Surface RT and Surface Pro made their debut. While Windows 8 was knocked around for its schizophrenic nature, the industrial design of the tablet garnered positive feedback. The cool-to-the-touch magnesium, and conveniently placed kickstand made as many headlines as did the negative responses to Windows 8. The Surface team produced a thoughtfully crafted tablet. It wasn’t all praise; the industrial design also got knocked for its weight, odd rectangular dimensions and, one-stage kickstand. It’s apparent that rapid prototyping is still being executed today. The original Surface had many shortcomings and with each new Surface product, the team has been rapidly addressing some of the most vocal concerns of the tablet/hybrid. With the Surface Pro 3, the Surface team was able to open it’s design process. With the additional screen advantage, they were able to spread out the packaging and place internals in new areas while also chipping off weight and inches to the device. In addition to the size change, the Surface team has also been able to change their production and iteration cycles. The team has slimmed down their development cycle from the previous 10 to 12 weeks it used to take while they waited on specific tools like C&C machines.

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What’s more impressive is that all the teams that helped design the Surface, also use the product to help continue its development. The design teams test their designs using CAD programs that run on the Surface as well as the mechanical engineers who use previous versions (Surface Pros ideally) of the Surface to design the next. Groene mentioned that typically, software and programs and VMs are used on more dedicated hardware like a PC. Fortunately the Surface and Surface Pro carry their own weight. With the Surface Pro 3, the Surface team extended their original design philosophy of hardware as staging for software with the addition of the pen. According to Groene the team wanted to, “go one step further and have some sort of clipboard effect or drawing, where we really build a stage for the pen to interact with the software.” The Surface team shelled out some more information on how they approached the “schoolbagability” conundrum of the hybrid device as well as making the Surface Pro 3 more personal in the appeal during the discussion. When all is said and done, the key take away from the presentation was that Groene and his team see the Surface line of devices as living and breathing things. The evolution of these products will continue as people find more and interesting things to do with them.

Unfortunately, Groene revealed no insight into what processes they were taking in the development of the Surface Pro 4. With all things being considered, I think we can rest assured the same thoughtful process that brought us the Surface Pro 3, will find itself in the final product for the Surface 4.

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