Before Microsoft unveiled the Surface tablet last week in Los Angeles, it unveiled the mouse. More specifically, the 1983 Microsoft Mouse, which CEO Steve Ballmer hailed as an example of the company’s 30-year history in hardware.
That sentiment—that Microsoft is both a software and hardware company—is one the company stressed several months ago in March, when a group of top engineers and designers showed off a different mouse, the Microsoft Arc Touch, a sleek device that can be physically snapped from a flat to folded position. At the Soho House in New York, in front of a small audience of select journalists, members of Microsoft’s Windows 8, Phone, and Xbox teams discussed all aspects of design at Microsoft. But in retrospect, it’s that Arc Touch mouse that not only offered some hint that Microsoft might be interested in playing a larger role outside software, but also gave insight into much of the inspiration behind how the Surface hardware was designed.
"I think the [Arc Touch] gets into everything that customers see and touch and hear," said Young Kim, senior user experience designer with the Microsoft hardware group. "There should be nothing on that product that we didn’t intend on having. You start to get into things like the amount of force required to bend it: What’s the right kilogram of force required to do that? What’s the sound it makes so that it doesn’t sound cheap? So it doesn’t sound broke? So it sounds like it’s meant to sound, in a way that’s reassuring? You have to work with the engineering teams, the manufacturing partners—be at the assembly line, sit there, and figure out how much force you put on this one screw."
It’s the exact same design thinking that went into the Surface tablet, which features two major hardware innovations: a magnesium casing with an integrated kickstand, and an ultra-thin, 3-millimeter attachable keyboard that doubles as a foldable cover. Like the Arc Touch, which snaps into place with the same satisfaction you get from cracking a wishbone, the kickstand was designed and "created around sound," said Panos Panay, Microsoft Surface GM, at the company’s event in Los Angeles. "We iterated over and over again in an anechoic (echo-proof) chamber. We really wanted to get the sound right—to feel and sound like a high-end car door—so you get that visceral feeling, that emotional attachment to your product when you open the kickstand and close it."
Mind you, we’re talking about a kickstand. But having played with the Surface myself—snapping the kickstand in and out—I have to admit there is something surprisingly gratifying about the experience. It firmly folds out, stands rigidly at attention, and disappears cleanly into the Surface’s backside. "We designed [the Arc Touch] on purpose so you would snap it often because you get this pleasure out of snapping it," Sam Moreau, principle director of user experience on Windows 8, told me in Los Angeles. The same is true, Moreau said, of the Surface, which he was just "dying to say something about" back in March at New York’s Soho House.
Sound also plays a crucial role in the Surface’s attachable Touch Cover keyboard, which cements into place when pressed to the tablet thanks to a magnetic connector. Featuring "a combination of alignment and clamping magnets," said Panay, the sensation "gives you confidence. … You can never miss connecting to this device." "Click," echoed Windows president Steven Sinofsky. "You heard that. It’s solid. Click." A top industrial designer at Microsoft demonstrated the Touch Cover for me. "The magnetic spine" glues the Surface and Touch Cover together and will not let go, even when the designer shook the tablet back and forth, with the keyboard swinging below but never losing its grip. Folding the flap around to the back, a built-in accelerator turns the keys off, letting the Touch Cover go to sleep.
Unfortunately, Microsoft did not let us type on the Touch Cover while the Surface was on, so I was only able to tap the keyboard as it was disconnected. The keys are flat, touch sensitive, and have a rubbery feel. (A slightly thicker iteration, called the Type Cover, offers actual key buttons and a trackpad.) To make a touch-sensitive keyboard work, Microsoft adjusted input settings based on the pressure applied to the surface. "When you type at touch-type speeds, you have to find your home position and rest your hands. To do that, your keyboard can’t fire when you put your hands down," said Panay. "It knows the grams of force coming off my fingertips onto Touch Cover. When I put pressure on the J key, the pressure goes up as I push harder and harder."
"I can do about 50 words a minute on it, which is twice what I can do on glass," said Steven Sinofsky. "It works exactly like you’d expect a keyboard to work." (With the Type Cover, Sinofsky boasted 65 words per minute.) The design inspirations here, again, can be traced back to the mouse. "We have 30 years of input experience using mice and 15 years creating keyboards, [so] we really understand how to create a great typing experience," said Panay.
And specifically with the Arc Touch, we had a preview of the innovations Microsoft would put into the Surface. The hardware snaps and folds and clicks in unexpected but satisfying and reassuring ways. The sound of the device is incredibly important. And magnets play a prominent role in improving the experience—even the stylus pen sticks to the bottom of the Surface, appearing to defy gravity, just as one could paste the USB connector to the bottom of the Arc Touch.
As Steve Ballmer said in his opening remarks, describing the 1983 Microsoft Mouse, "to be successful, Windows needed a mouse."