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Microsoft Windows head Panos Panay says that the decision to ship the Surface Duo smartphone on Android reflects the company's focus on flexibility in reaching customers

  • Microsoft recently released the Surface Duo, a dual-screened smartphone that folds in half like a book, running on Google's Android operating system.
  • Releasing such a device on an operating system other than Windows would have been unthinkable at Microsoft under former CEO Steve Ballmer.
  • Microsoft's chief product officer and Windows chief Panos Panay explained the reasoning the decision was to "meet customers where they are."
  • "As [CEO Satya Nadella] and I sat down and discussed it, it really is about…bringing the Microsoft that you love to different platforms," Panay said in an interview this week at the Business Insider Global Trends Festival.
  • Are you a Microsoft employee? Contact this reporter via the encrypted messaging app Signal (+1-425-344-8242) or email ([email protected]).
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

When Microsoft announced its long-awaited smartphone, the Surface Duo, would run on the Android operating system, it marked a major reversal for a company once notorious for prioritizing Windows above all else — and that had only a few years ago abandoned the smartphone market entirely. 

The recently released Surface Duo is a dual-screened smartphone that folds in half like a book, running on Google's Android operating system. Microsoft's chief product officer and Windows head Panos Panay explained the reasoning behind the decision was to "meet customers where they are."

"As [CEO Satya Nadella] and I sat down and discussed it, it really is about…bringing the Microsoft that you love to different platforms," Panay said in an interview this week at the Business Insider Global Trends Festival. "I mean, as much as I love Windows…there are times when you are going to step away from your PC."

Panay is generally considered the driving force behind Microsoft's line of Surface devices, starting with the release of the original Surface tablet back in 2012. In 2018, he was promoted to chief product officer. Earlier this year, Panay was placed in charge of a new Windows + Devices team in a reorganization that also saw him take overall leadership of the Windows operating system.

Notably, while Windows is still the most prominent PC operating system in the world — Windows 10 has over a billion active devices — it never took off on smartphones. Under Nadella, Microsoft wound down its entire smartphone business, including shuttering the Windows 10 Mobile operating system effort entirely. That left Microsoft without a platform of its own when it came time to build the Surface Duo.

Still, there was a time when choosing anything other than Windows to power a Surface device would have been unthinkable within Microsoft. Case in point: Under former CEO Steve Ballmer, Microsoft even canceled the Courier tablet — which would have been an early, future-looking competitor to Apple's iPad — because it may have undermined Windows.

Likewise, Microsoft once shunned Linux, once considered the biggest threat to Windows; Ballmer once called open source software a "cancer." Now Linux is in wider use on Microsoft's Azure cloud platform than Windows, even as the company embraces open source across its larger developer ecosystem.

Building the Surface Duo "wasn't about shipping a device on, or not on, Windows," Panay said. It was about going where customers already are, and showing off the "best of Microsoft." Microsoft makes a wide variety of apps available on Android, from the Office suite to video game streaming in the Xbox Game Pass app, and has worked to bridge the gap between smartphones and Windows 10 with features to receive calls and text messages on a PC.

"It's not about personal computers, it's about personal computing," Panay said. "We want customers to be able to move from the PC to their phone through the cloud, being able to do whatever they need, wherever they want. And that's all anchored in what Microsoft delivers. So, in building Duo, yeah, it's on Android, for sure, but it's where customers are today on their mobile devices."

Panay said his conversations with counterparts at Google, including Android boss Hiroshi Lockheimer, revolved around "What is the customer need here?" and "How do we how do we fill it?"

Got a tip? Contact reporter Ashley Stewart via encrypted messaging app Signal (+1-425-344-8242) or email ([email protected]).

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