I’ve always been dedicated to surfaces. What started exclusively as a way to pioneer the Windows 2-in-1 concept has grown into a full-fledged premium laptop brand with options at nearly every price point.
But after a year like 2023, it’s hard not to feel like we’re reaching a turning point for the brand.
lack of speed
This year was a very slow year for Surface. Microsoft announced four new Surface devices in 2023: Surface Go 4, Surface Laptop Go 3, Surface Hub 3, and Surface Laptop Studio 2. It may seem like a lot, but when you break it down, there are “go to” devices. Both are budget-focused, and the Surface Hub 3 is a purely business product. The Surface Laptop Studio 2 was really the only exciting new consumer device announced, and it was a fairly minor spec update. The Surface line has never been known for frequent updates or drastic design changes, but this is still a pretty cool set of updates to Microsoft’s flagship line of PCs.
Save on everything from laptops and tablets to coffee makers and smart home essentials like air purifiers and the Amazon Echo.
What was perhaps the most disturbing thing about the Surface hardware event? Very little time was spent talking about the products. Instead, it became another platform for Microsoft to promote Copilot, its AI service that is increasingly being built into every application. That should give you an idea of where the head of Microsoft stands right now – especially compared to the superficial events of past years.
Even more importantly, which products were not It was announced this year. The Surface Pro and Surface Laptop are the most important products of the series and have consistently received annual updates. Usually, it’s just a bump internally, but sometimes there will be new features or design changes. But in 2023, both the products were completely absent. The latest versions of these two were launched in October 2022 – Surface Laptop 5 and Surface Pro 9 respectively.
I’m not saying these won’t ever get updates, but it’s made for a very quiet year for the Surface – that’s for sure. This is made worse by the fact that this is the 10th anniversary of the Surface Pro.
Pano of it all
However, the biggest harbinger of doom for Surfaces is not any particular product. It’s one person – the sole (and sometimes revered) leader of the Surface brand from the beginning, Panos Panay. He is responsible for building Surface — and expanding its reach — for more than a decade. This is a man who once broke down in tears at a press conference explaining what a deep emotional impact one of his new devices had had on him. This is his child.
That’s why his departure from Microsoft was so surprising. It’s hard to think about what Surface is without him, and it’s hard to explain his departure without knowing more about what happened behind the scenes. We don’t know if the company wanted to slow down the new Surface releases and it left out Pene – or perhaps he actually saw a lucrative future in his new position at Amazon.
We know that Panay was not happy with “some significant cuts to simplify Surface Business” and “focus more on Microsoft’s hits rather than more experimental devices,” according to a report from Business Insider. This is disappointing to hear, especially since Panay recently received a huge promotion in 2022, which saw the integration of Windows and devices under his singular leadership. The hope was that there would be more support behind the Surface and a more integrated approach to hardware and software. If the proposed cuts were true, they would destroy much of the momentum behind this new internal structure.
However, there is a reason for these cuts.
Surface was Panay’s child.
The Surface brand faces a particularly tough time in 2023 on the financial front. Of course, PC sales have been in decline all year. But in its annual report, Microsoft indicated that Surface revenue had declined by $1.8 billion, an even steeper decline than its competitors. Surface PC sales aren’t just a generalization of pandemic trends — they’ve fallen to pre-2019 levels.
This comes after several years of evolution for Surface devices, which started with the failure of Windows RT but improved over the years. The Surface brand became a financial moneymaker for Microsoft, while still playing an inspirational role for other Windows PC manufacturers and pushing designs in certain directions. With daring 2-in-1 designs and tie-ups with a wide range of chip partners, it has played that role successfully many times over the past few years – it has even adopted ARM as an option before its competition.
With increasing uncertainty in the industry, especially with an overall decline in PC sales in 2023, it certainly seems like Microsoft was looking to reduce efforts to invest further in the Surface. After all, large-scale investment in AI is consuming too much of the available attention and resources.
My purpose is not to speculate, but simply to say what Panay’s departure from Microsoft means Some? to surface. I have a hard time imagining a situation where Panay was giving up strong support for Surface internally.
Of course, a slow year for the surface doesn’t mean it’s dead in the water. I can’t imagine that Microsoft would pull the plug completely, as a company like Google might have done. But the future of the Surface is still uncertain, and for someone who’s always cheered on the brand’s growing success, that’s a shame. A less premium player in the world of Windows devices is never a good thing for the health of the ecosystem – especially one that was willing to push boundaries and try new things.
The Surface may still be around in five years, but it may not have the same brash and ambitious spirit that made it a key player in the Windows ecosystem.