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The (Extremely) Humble Origins of Microsoft Surface

How Steve Jobs designed the most promising product Microsoft has ever launched.

Today’s Microsoft Surface event was very impressive. There’s no telling if Redmond’s new tablet will succeed in a marketplace already saturated with iPads and countless barely-usable Android knock-offs, but there is no denying that between this announcement and Windows Phone, Microsoft finally seems to have figured out how to design products that people want. (Or, at least should want.)

But rather than bombard you with more details about this device or pointless speculation as to its performance or game-changiness, I’d like to take you on a trip down memory lane. Here’s my favorite demo of the original Microsoft Surface prototype. (And no, it’s not the infamous parody video that declared Surface to be a “Big-Ass Table.”)

Unfortunately I can’t embed the video, because it’s locked into Scientific American’s older video player. The upside is you probably haven’t seen it before. Here’s Bill Gates himself, just before he stepped down as chairman of Microsoft, demoing Surface. (Click through the image to see the video.)

Microsoft Surface demo by Bill Gates, at the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show

Gates’s demo looks, today, like it could have been taken straight off the Apple App store. What’s telling, aside from the fact that Microsoft’s vision of a touch computer was at that time a device so large that no one would ever buy it, is that the touch technology the demo uses barely even works. Gates jabs at the screen, holds his finger down, skips over items that are unresponsive, and in general sort of muddles through.

More of Gates’ half-hearted 2007 Surface demo

Compare that to today’s demo of Surface, which in every respect screams “We made the iPad++!!!” Start with the case. The back of Apple’s iPad is aluminum? Well Surface is made out magnesium! And the screen is bigger (10.6” vs. 9.5”). And the cover has a built-in keyboard. And this tablet has USB 3.0, which is only available on Apple’s top of the line MacBook Pro. Etc.

What changed between 2007 and the present? Well, obviously, the iPad was introduced, ushering in a “post-PC” era which Microsoft could not help but recognize as an existential threat. Steve Jobs’ brickbat thrown through the window of PC manufacturers has been so compelling to users that it has in every way forced Microsoft’s hand.

Everything about today’s Surface presentation screamed “Apple,” from the central role in the event given to designer Panos Panay (do you think he and Apple’s Jonathan Ive ever hang out and swap stories about how awesome it is to be in charge of billion-dollar product lines?) to Microsoft’s move into an integrated hardware / software package, which Apple long ago demonstrated is necessary to achieve the level of control required to deliver a truly satisfying user experience to non-geeks, i.e. the mass market.

Indeed, the entire event seemed to have been architected not by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, but rather by absentee puppetmaster Steve Jobs, whose dominance of this space has forced even Microsoft into the Apple mold. From the perspective of those of us who have been following this saga since Apple meant 8 inch black and white screens and a fight for survival against the dominance of the Wintel monopoly, this spectacle is truly surreal.

Bill Gates in 1984, at a conference on Apple’s then-new Macintosh computer

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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