On October 2, 2019, Microsoft set the internet ablaze with an event that reflected a refinement and evolution of its successful Surface hardware. The accelerant for this inferno was the addition of bold category-defining devices to the Surface line of first-party products. Microsoft positions these products as reference hardware to guide industry partners as they build Windows, and now with Surface Duo, Android devices.
Surface Pro did this for 2-in-1s, which even now Apple is mimicking. Surface Pro X, Surface Earbuds, Surface Neo, and Surface Duo are meant to encourage OEMs to create current generation products as well as create categories for what Microsoft sees as next-generation computing.
Before the event, various leaks, insightful analysis, and more primed us for what fans and critics recognized as Microsoft’s most anticipated Surface event to date. As a tech enthusiast and ardent supporter of Microsoft products, I wanted to attend this event but had no expectation I’d be invited — until I was. I was ecstatic when I received an email that presented me with an opportunity to be part of the most significant Surface event ever. This is how it all went down. (To be clear, I did not attend this event as a media representative of Windows Central, and as such, Microsoft paid for our hotel for a night and gave us some “goodies.” More on that coming up. )
Microsoft was looking for Surface fans
On September 5, 2019, the following Windows Insider email graced my inbox:
The Windows Insider Program is partnering with our friends at Surface to find the biggest Microsoft fans. We’re inviting up to 40 superfans to celebrate Microsoft innovations in tech alongside us in NYC this October. That’s all we can share for now, but believe us when we say: “You won’t want to miss this!”
For the chance to attend this exclusive Microsoft event, simply share a short video telling us how Surface has helped you do what you love. Whether you pursued a passion project, built a business, or created something super cool and useful for work or fun, we want to hear about it. So, show us why you’re a superfan—enter the contest by September 9.
I composed the narrative for my entry, which my wife edited to ensure that it fits within the allotted time limit. Within an hour of the deadline, I submitted the following video. The video highlights how Surface helps my wife, and I run our small business, Ward Advocacy, LLC, where we support at-risk youth and people with disabilities throughout Connecticut.
I was blown away when I received the following email on September 12th, 2019.
Hello Jason (and Jason’s wife)!
You’ve shown that you’re a fan of the Surface products we make, and to show our appreciation, we’re inviting you to join us for our exclusive launch event in New York City!… Our team has been planning some fun things beginning October 1st evening and throughout October 2nd, and we intend on packing these two days with food, fun, and giveaways as we share some exciting news with the world.
October 1st (6 – 8pm): Welcome Reception, and for your convenience, we have a hotel room available to you if needed October 2nd (7:30am – 4pm): Exclusive Microsoft event, including breakfast and lunch with special guest.
Though unable to attend the reception, my wife and I made the two-hour drive to New York, checked into the hotel, and checked in with Microsoft on the morning of the event. I was surprised when a smiling face that I’d never seen greeted me by name as we received our guest badges before entering the room for breakfast. Further discussion revealed that these greeters were among those who reviewed the video entries. To cap off this initial interaction, I was also given Surface Headphones, which everyone who attended the previous night’s reception were given. Things were off to a great start.
All about the fans
During the buffet-style breakfast, Microsoft’s Chief Marketing Officer Chris Capossela addressed the crowd of 50 or more fans in the large room. Surface creator Panos Panay followed him and further set the tone for why we were there and what to expect.
Affirming the sense of being “chosen” that the Microsoft-provided accommodations, reception, breakfast, and the Surface Headphones gift conveyed to us, Panay shared that this event was about the fans. He stated that in the past, the setting in which we were then sitting would have been occupied by the press. He stressed that this was the first time the company was doing this with fans.
— Jason L Ward (@JLTechWord) October 3, 2019
As a contributing (not staff) writer for Windows Central, a tech enthusiast, and a fan of Microsoft’s products, I’ve hoped my press affiliations would gain me access to an event like this. Thus, I felt very blessed to be at Microsoft’s biggest Surface Event, with my wife, purely as a fan, based primarily on how we use Surface to run our business Ward Advocacy, LLC, helping at-risk youth and people with disabilities. It felt more meaningful, relaxing, and rewarding than being there as press to “work” the event.
Surface Creator Panos Panay told us this event was about us, the fans!
Though I perceived the event through the combined perspectives of analyst, fan, and writer (notetaking and all), the freedom of being there as a fan, and the benefits we received in that capacity were liberating.
Panay encouraged us to express our genuine excitement if we saw something that we liked during what he described as the show; not just a press event. Of course, our being there was part of Microsoft’s marketing strategy. Thus, any genuine expressions of emotion during the broadcast would communicate to viewers that Microsoft’s products could provoke excitement. Nonetheless, my concerns regarding what was acceptable decorum at this event (do I remain professionally quiet or can I freely express “wow” moments?) were much allayed. The context of being there as a fan and not press made “making noise” even easier.
Off to the Surface show and Microsoft’s mobile strategy
After being told that we’d get preferential seating, we were bussed to the event venue, and instructed to find seats labeled “Fan.” Since this event was about “us,” we entered the room before the press and got front row seating. Yeah, I was glad to be “wearing my fan” hat.
During the show, we saw the expected device refreshes with Surface Pro 7 and Surface Laptop 3, anticipated devices with the Surface Pro X and Surface Neo (previously Project Centaurus), and the unexpected with the Surface Duo (previously Project Andromeda). As a fan, I was pumped. As an analyst, I was excited. As a writer who has written against the tide of popular opinion, I felt vindicated to see much of what I’ve presented as Microsoft’s mobile strategy finally being announced, albeit with some twists.
Microsoft isn’t done with mobile, and Surface Duo is the manifestation of Microsoft’s commitment to a pocketable device that is more than a phone. Panay didn’t call it a phone, though he said the press would. He just called it a Surface. In fact, the Duo’s introduction after the larger, versatile, highly mobile Surface Neo foldable PC, which sports the same form factor, provided some context for this pocketable reference device that is a year away from hitting the market. The Android-powered Duo was initially meant to be a smaller Windows-powered Neo, only pocketable and with telephony. And I think that pocket Windows device is still coming. What remains to be seen is the form it takes.
Surface Neo and Surface Duo represent the beginning of true convergence of PC and phone.
Android is the right choice for Duo for now to build key developer relationships for Microsoft’s device and services ecosystem and more. These relationships, if Surface Neo proves successful on the software and hardware side, can potentially benefit a more pocketable version of Neo with telephony – the original plan for the Duo. I think the Android choice for the Duo is part of a longer vision that will precursor Windows 10 X on a pocketable, telephony-enabled device in the future as Microsoft or an OEM partner will inevitably make the Surface Neo concept smaller. Granted, I believe Android and Windows 10 X-powered pocketable devices can and will continue to coexist in Microsoft’s ecosystem.
Needless to say, I made plenty of noise when the Neo and Duo were announced. Though I noticed when watching the event after the fact, the sound of our cheering seemed subdued. The room was much louder than the broadcast portrays.
You get a Surface, You get a Surface…
After the event, the press went to get up close and personal with the new gadgets while we fans were swooped away to a rooftop restaurant for lunch. We’d get our hands-on time with the tech after being treated to a meal. The food was good, and meeting new people was great, and what came next was remarkable. We’d be receiving swag bags with all types of gear inside, and we’d also have our choice of either a Surface Pro 7 or Surface Laptop 3. I made more noise then than I made at the event. I wasn’t alone. Yeah, being there as a fan was much better than being there as press.
Back at the event venue, we got to peruse the new tech. I also met some of our readers who recognized me after I gave them my name. And as a testament to the impact of a mobile workforce after almost five years with the company, I also met Daniel Rubino, our executive editor, Zac Bowden, our Senior Editor, and Mauro Huculak, our How-To mogul for the first time in person at this event. Weird, huh?
Hands-on time with the as yet not released devices was cool. The Windows 10 X-powered Surface Pro X for its portability, great thin-bezel display, awesome carpenter style pencil with the keyboard storage space was impressive, and it needs to be my next device. I loved the svelte build of the Surface Laptop 3, I’m excited about the Surface Pro 7, and though I don’t like the aesthetic or the price of the Surface Earbuds, the sound quality is excellent, and I love what they can do.
The best part of my Surface fan experience was enjoying everything with my wife, who also loves Surface. And the team who made our experience comfortable, fun, and exciting was excellent.
The ultimate Surface fan experience
Finally, as a fan and writer, I have written extensively about Microsoft’s mobile strategy. My work has presented a consistent narrative about Microsoft’s mobile strategy despite the constantly shifting narratives presented by other venues. Much of the narrative has been realized or is on course to that vision. I had hoped to get a chance to talk to Panos Panay about the Surface’s journey to our pockets. He promised that he might be around for pictures, at which point I hoped ever so briefly to speak with him, but was told he was in a meeting.
Mr. Panay, if my work were a symphony flowing from my heart, to my head, and to my hands, there would be one instrument missing from the orchestra of my portfolio: an interview with Panos Panay. That would be a grand finale to my Surface fan experience.