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Is Microsoft Surface The New Perfect Thing?

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Yesterday Microsoft announced a new device which is claims is both a tablet and a PC. I’ll probably post more about Surface later, probably on Wired.com. But in the meantime I’ve been watching the video of the launch.

This was a very unusual event for Microsoft. The guys from Redmond were totally unselfconscious in picking up a number of Cupertino tropes. On the, um, surface the MS execs aped the fresh enthusiasm with which Steve Jobs (and now Tim Cook and other exec) discussed his products. Clearly Steve Ballmer, Steve Sinofsky and (product GM) Panos Panay were passionate about the company’s new creation, even choked up about it.

But underneath the (here goes again) surface, the energy and emotion seemed rooted in liberation. Freed of farming out hardware implementation to partners, Microsoft was exulting in the opportunities to do cool things in the guise of whole widgetry. They got geeky about the nature of how design was deeply built into the new devices, down to its chemistry and materials. It was refreshing to see.

As I said, I’ll write later about the prospects for Surface. But as someone who’s written a lot about the Apple design process, particularly in my book The Perfect Thing, I saw a lot of parallels. And don’t call me crazy for wondering whether some folks on the Surface team had picked up my book. Panos Panay spoke at length about the concept of “perfect” as a motivating factor in the creation of Surface. The word was like a mantra for him.

In addition, he and the others dwelt on one symbol of the care and hard work deeply built into the new device: the crisp crackle that comes when the much touted smart cover snaps onto the tablet.
In The Perfect Thing, I have a long passage about coolness in a product. The legendary Israeli tech investor Yossi Vardi went on a quest to understand, and possibly capture the recipe, for coolness. He gathered all the information about great products and experiences. But ultimately, he found there was no code to crack.

He was left with one possibly apocryphal anecdote, about when the Japanese were building the Lexus. Their goal was to make something as cool as a Mercedes. They identified one particular trait: the solid, bizarrely satisfying click made when a Mercedes door shut. They tried to analyze why that sound arose. And they learned that it could not be easily replicated. It could only come when the entire rim of the door snugly closed against the chassis in an exact fit–a consequence of the painstaking planning and execution in every aspect of the car.

“The click came as a consequence of the way the door was, the care they took to make that,” Vardi told me. “And that was a consequence that stood for the perfection of the door.”

I’m not sure whether the Surface team studied my book or not. But I do know one thing: they consistently used one comparison to describe the sound and the feeling you get when the cover of their tablet clicks into place: a door shutting on a high-end luxury car.

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