Exclusive Q&A: Panos Panay on how the Surface Duo transforms Microsoft again

The head of Surface dishes on how the dual-screen, Android-powered foldable breathes new life into phones; the Courier concept that never was; and how it's all helping Microsoft evolve beyond Windows.

Microsoft celebrates two major milestones this year: Windows 95 turned 25 a few weeks ago and the dual-screen Surface Duo marks Microsoft’s grand return to mobile, a competitive battleground it was forced to surrender to Apple and Google.

The two achievements tell the story of two very different companies. One trapped in tunnel vision, and the other taking bold gambles to push everyone — not just itself — forward under CEO Satya Nadella’s North Star to “help people achieve more.”

Though still widely considered The Windows Company or The Office Company, Microsoft has quietly reinvented itself as a design-forward innovator and, strangely enough, a voice of unity in a highly polarized moment. Once the domain of geek-experts, technology is now utterly mainstream. Hardware, software, and services — they all look and work the same for most consumers. An iPhone is an iPhone and iOS and Android now unapologetically copy each other’s features.

In an alternate universe, a sidelined Microsoft would have simply accepted defeat by Apple and Google and retreated into the shadows. But incoming-CEO Satya Nadella pivoted the company and its executive team into something no one saw coming. Nadella decreed a new mission to meet users with its services on their platforms, on non-Windows devices; he broke with his predecessors’ fixations of making Windows the one dominant platform that matters for a platform agnostic approach. Nadella fostered an open door policy instead of using aggressive tactics to corner developers and monopolize markets. He also stopped perpetuating dull, tasteless design — a holdover from Microsoft’s corporate beginnings.

Under Nadella, Microsoft could have focused completely on enterprise — forever selling Office Suite services, Azure cloud computing, and promoting better developer relations with communities like GitHub. But that wouldn’t have moved the needle — not on the front-end to consumers at least.

Panos Panay, the head of product at Microsoft, and "father of the Surface" believes the Duo will usher in something new.Microsoft

Microsoft’s real transformation has been its willingness to take bold and daring risks — skate to where the puck is going, not where it is or has been. Whereas Microsoft previously was too occupied with world dominance to see mobile’s rise, Nadella’s policies have actually turned the company into a powerhouse again — a more benevolent one, that is. His welcoming stance empowered stalwarts like chief product officer Panos Panay to produce beautiful hardware design with the Surface devices. It’s created attractive and utilitarian software seen through its Fluent design language and beloved products like Outlook on iOS and the Chromium-based Edge web browser. The new Microsoft has also embraced accessible social, communicative, and collaborative tools like LinkedIn, Xbox, and Teams.

With the Duo — read our full review here — Microsoft is leveraging all of its learnings from creating literal and figurative transforming experiences (Surface, Windows Ink, OneNote, etc.) to usher in a new form factor. On a basic level, the Duo is a phone. However, its two screens make it so much more: it’s a tablet, a book, a mini laptop, Like a Surface Pro or a Surface Studio, the Duo is not limited to a singular mode (or “posture” as Panay calls it). It's also incredibly gorgeous — a real premium feeling device.

“The product’s gonna adapt to you.”

“The product’s gonna adapt to you,” Panay told me over a video call on Microsoft Teams. “Meaning, pick the form factor you want to use it in and let it sing. That’s the challenge.”

The Surface Duo's isn't about chasing specs. The thinness was paramount to its form and function says Panay.Raymond Wong / Input

I find Microsoft’s approach to new technology products incredibly fascinating because as much as I enjoy reciting and comparing speeds and feeds, the transformative experience it enables is all that matters at the end of the day. Does the device look and feel good to use wherever you are? Can the Duo’s two screens really help me do more? Save time? What use cases does the Duo enable that a typical smartphone can’t?

The Duo’s transforming hardware and software offer a new experience that may or may not connect with people right out the gate. (Microsoft won’t know until it tries.) But its release is also symbolic of a new Microsoft that understands neither good software or hardware alone is enough. It’s the combination that makes a product potent.

No person at Microsoft understands this magical formula better than Panay, who graciously took time out of his vacation with his family to talk shop about his baby, the Duo.

The below Q&A has been edited for clarity.

Input: The Duo is a new form factor. It’s ostensibly a phone. What is the goal with Duo? To win back mobile after Windows Mobile (née Windows Phone) failed?

Panos: It's the Microsoft you love and the Android you know. The goal was: how do you make the best Microsoft experience possible on a mobile device? It wasn't to reinvent the mobile software platform. It was make Microsoft great on the thing that’s in your pocket. It's not leaving [Windows] behind at all, it's adopting more. At the end of the day, the device is an endpoint for all things we build.

I do believe this is that transformative piece that lands right in the middle of that mission of helping people achieve more. We need that right now. The phone in your pocket today has limitations. It's awesome and you can do a ton with it and they're freaking cool devices and I live on one of them. Or I had.

I'm not saying they don't work. They're incredible but this is the next step and it is an opportunity for people to engage differently, emotionally connect in a new way, and then get more done. How do we help people achieve more — which is our mission. It's in our soul. It's our belief.

Don't reinvent things that are already working for folks.”

Input: Why didn’t you guys try to make the software more Windows-like? There are no Live tiles that reminds you of Windows Mobile. Did you guys just want a clean break from the bad memories?

Panos: You can feel Windows sprinkled in there. You do have the semblance of a taskbar at the bottom and you do have the windowing in front of you. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t about separating from history. It wasn’t about trying to call it something different. It was about “what do users need right now?”

The true design point was: do not try to recreate Android. We’re not trying to fork the code and create a whole new base to give older phone users something they remember. That wasn’t it. It was what do they need now? Where are people now? And meeting customers where they are. Don't reinvent things that are already working for folks.

Android is at the core, but the windowed experience is unmistakably Microsoft.Microsoft

Input: I like that you guys are embracing other platforms and meeting users where they are. Not being so prideful about sticking with Windows.

Panos: At the end of the day, we want customers to be able to accomplish more. When I say customers, I mean people — we call it end-user pool. Where ultimately, if somebody loves what they pick up, like when you picked up your device, hopefully, you felt like “whoa, when I pick this up, maybe I feel a bit different.” There’s something emotional about it.

That’s what the connection is supposed to be. At the end of the day, that emotion is the hardware and software coming together.

“So this is Courier? You finally got it done, right?”

Input: A lot of people, especially people who’ve been around for a while, have seen this device as the Courier concept. I don’t think you guys have ever formally said the Duo is an evolution from that concept. Was the Duo born out of the need to build something like that? That was 10 years ago.

Panos: I respect [the history of the Courier concept] for sure. But I wasn't part of it. I wasn’t working on it at the time. Actually, at all. I wasn’t connected to it. But I think at the end of the day knowing, regardless of what [the Courier team] was thinking — because I wasn't in the ethos of that team — we do know you're gonna feel that this idea of what two screens can do for you is real. How the brain works within these windows and how they can interact with one another is pretty powerful. It takes time to find it, and understand it, and make it yours for sure.

I've been asked this question a few times: So this is Courier? You finally got it done, right? I don't want to be disrespectful and say no because there's a heritage there in Microsoft and that was never a real product.

Input: What were the origins of the Duo? How long was it in development?

Panos: We knew at the time — I'm gonna say six years ago but I don't know for sure, five years ago maybe — we had this concept of “if the phone could ever be thin enough and fit in your pocket with two screens, the power of that would be immense and that was the power of windowing.”

We knew the way the brain turned on. This is multi-monitor, but what if it was in your pocket and it brought all the mobile attributes with it which meant thinness, battery life, speed, instant on — all the things that you’re used to on a mobile platform? And then ultimately, of course, apps which you can argue Android solved tremendously well for us.

I literally had this piece of metal in my pocket sitting in meetings. Two pieces of metal together with this beautiful hinge that we had invented. It wasn't robust like the one you're using now. It was a concept just to see if it fit in my pocket. Was there a fidget factor? Was this idea real? Would I go here? And would I use it here? That’s what started to create the form and function.

We thought if they came together seamlessly, there's magic here that can transform. For sure companies will go here. Shortly after, we're looking at folding screens, we're looking at a bunch of other things, and coming down the pipe we're looking at them going: What are the limitations? Can you put it in your pocket? Does it work? Does it really turn the brain on? Is it too much work for people to reorganize everything to start doing what they're doing? All these concepts were rolling through.

Input: At what point did you feel you had something that would work?

Panos: What I look at when we're building products: you have technology. What do we have? What can be done? You have user needs, which is the biggest piece here. And then you have elegance. Technology and elegance tend to blend, but they matter. They really do matter now in this day and age. Fundamentally, when you see those three things come together, you know you have something.

“I'm not trying to chase a tech spec. I never was.”

Input: When I picked up this device, I thought to myself there’s going to be an audience that sees deficiencies in the Duo. There’s no 5G, it’s got thick bezels, there’s no wireless charging, etc. What do you have to say to these people?

Panos: There's a tech-leaning audience and I know I'm not gonna make everybody happy. I'm not trying to chase a tech spec. I never was. This product, if you tried to chase a tech spec, you are right, it would have formable reliability problems. It would have things on it that are just not needed and don't make any sense. But as such it would have traded off everything else that you needed.

I hope everybody can see that. I do read my comments on Twitter or stuff and they're like, "What were you thinking?" Wait till you put your eyes on the screen, wait till you put your hands on the product before you get into, "Don't you know what a modern phone is like?"

[At this point, Panos is really excited and nerdy, not from a place of arrogance, but from knowledge]

I absolutely know what a modern phone is! As a matter of fact, I can recite every effing spec on the planet if you'd like me to. I can tell you where the tech comes from. I can tell you who the manufacturers are. I can tell you how you make them. I can tell you where the challenges are.

However, I'm not trying to chase every one of those. What I want is for people to know that if you can find this absolute moment of meeting people's needs with elegance, they're going to achieve more. It's pretty simple.

The Duo is designed to adapt to your however you use it.Raymond Wong / Input
I can recite every effing spec on the planet if you'd like me to.

Input: What was the single most challenging of making the Duo happen? Was it the hinge or the software? You guys are obsessed with hinges. I just rewatched an old video of you guys talking about hinges and getting that right.

Panos: There are hardware limitations that we had to overcome to keep the gestalt to the product when you pick it up. Was it the hinge? Was it the software? Actually, put those two things together.

Knowing what posture you're in, predicting where you're taking it, understanding that seam between the hardware and software, so that's the hinge and the hinge angle, that's the software and how it's reacting. If you span it [spread an app fullscreen across both displays] and rotate it where you’re in the newspaper feed mode, so let's make sure we give it to you in the smartest way possible. When you launch two [app] screens at the same time and you've moved it to landscape versus portrait, what were you trying to accomplish? When you fold it back to take a call or do two-finger typing finger typing, did the keyboard adapt perfectly or not? All while letting the user choose.

If you use the keyboard as it is today, we move the keyboard under your thumb or under both your thumbs or we move it to landscape mode. But actually, with one click of the button you can change that. Creating the adaptability so the product knew where you were — that was important. But then making sure the functionality was "but I don't want that, I want to use it this way," which is part of the product adapting to you.

Giving the user that choice, that's where Android's really powerful by the way. Because now you have this opportunity to use it in a regular state or regular form, or you want to use both screens as a single screen, we can do it. We can create that for you. That's not the hardware adapting, that's the software adapting to the user.

The Surface Duo's hinge is an extraordinary piece of engineering with precision, watch-like gears.Microsoft

Input: It feels natural to open the Duo and want to write on it just like a notebook. There’s no built-in Surface Pen. It’s sold separately. Why isn’t there a Surface Pen? Even my mom thinks there should be a stylus.

Panos: When we're pushing a device forward like this, when is the right time to integrate the depth of a pen? Everything we're doing right now in Office and OneNote — when you say the Microsoft you love — is bringing the pen to life. And it will only continue to evolve to get better.

The form factor does encourage pen. OneNote on the device with [Windows Ink] is probably the best latency you're gonna find or the best writing feeling you're gonna find anywhere on a small form factor bar none. We spent an inordinate amount of time making sure that the elegance was perfect because we wanted to make sure the note-taking experience on OneNote on whatever you were doing was great.

The Surface Slim Pen is sold separately.Microsoft

The idea that laying Ink down is perfect. We have a very narrow focus today on getting the Microsoft suite working perfectly with the pen and then as it evolves you will continue to see more integration with the pen. We have app developers right now that are taking the APIs and are writing apps or enhancing your apps for Ink because they want their single screen Duo Ink experience to be great — that's exciting for us. We're not going to let up on that. We're all in on it. It's part of the productivity experience. Duo and the Surface Slim Pen will be sold side by side.

Ultimately, you start getting into design decisions. When do you want to integrate the pen into the product? How thin do you want the product to be? What are the primary use cases? What are the secondary and tertiary use cases? When you start getting into that, you start understanding here's what the customer needs now. Let's give them that and let's make sure the pens are there to help them get to where they want to go.

And then in the future, it's what do we do next? what it brings is just a great comp, you know, great piece of what do we do next?

Input: Last question. Are you afraid of the Duo failing? Are you worried or concerned that the Duo and this dual-screen form factor might not be the reference design for others to follow? What if it doesn't end up being a game changer like the Surface Pro?

Panos: I wouldn't think about this as a gen one device. We may not have shipped the first two generations, but you can't get to this form factor on a gen one. You just can't. Someone had said "Panos, it'll take you three gens and I'm like that's good news because I'm now on the third-gen of this product." We didn't ship it, but we've been working on it for years. Part of the growth mindset of Microsoft is learning from failure. But you don't have to ship to fail.

You have to build the products. You have to get to where you say there's a limitation and this is not the right time. We've done that with this product for years. We're now here. Am I afraid? No, no, no. Am I excited to learn? Absolutely. Do I believe that we will learn when people use this product? Yep. Do I know that there's a learning curve like I told you from a small phone to a big phone or from one OS to another? Yeah, there is.

Panos Panay isn't worried if the Duo falls short. He's excited to learn from what works and what doesn't so future devices can be made better.Microsoft

I gotta say this without sounding like some weird arrogant. This team believes there's more you can do here. We have our roadmap in front of us, we can see it. We see where the product goes over time. We know that what we have in hand now is right for now. We know that. I believe that others will follow suit. These products take time for adoption.

“We know that what we have in hand now is right for now. I believe that others will follow suit.”

Of course, if I didn't believe that, you'd be like: what are you doing? At the end of the day, if more form factors come, that's amazing for me because our software and hardware integration becomes something that goes back to what users need. Back to Satya's point "don't be afraid to adopt other platforms." It doesn't have to be my hardware or this team's fundamental software.

But the idea that you can use all our suite of services and applications worldwide — no matter who builds it — on these new form factors — I think that's awesome. Then you say "if it helps people achieve more" that's what I'm here to be part of.

Surface Duo review: Microsoft didn't make a phone. It made the future.