Why Microsoft is convinced PCs aren’t dead yet

From Windows to Surface, Microsoft's betting on a new era of innovation in laptops and desktops.

Windows 11 devices arrayed on a blue background.

Microsoft sees the PC as a force for choice and openness, in software and in hardware.

Image: Microsoft

PCs are back. After years of what looked like a slow decline into nothingness, the pandemic — and the remote work, school and life it created — turned laptops and desktops into must-have devices. From MacBooks to Chromebooks, virtually everything in the PC category has seen huge growth during the pandemic even with a chip shortage making it hard for companies to keep up. Even computer monitors have never sold so fast.

Panos Panay has seen the spike more closely than most. As chief product officer at Microsoft, Panay oversees both the teams that make Microsoft's Surface hardware and the teams that make Windows. For the last 18 months or so, Panay and his teams have been dogfooding those products like never before: "We design these products on these products," he said, "which is very interesting." For months, Panay has been going to his office on Microsoft's Redmond campus only occasionally, to work in the hardware lab or do the occasional team catch-up. But for the most part, he's been on video calls and in group chats all day like everyone else.

Suffice to say, that has changed how Panay thinks about Microsoft's products, and how his teams built the latest versions. The plans for what would become Windows 11, which launched to the public Tuesday, and for new products like the Surface Pro 8 and the Surface Laptop Studio had begun long before the pandemic started. But they changed, because the world changed. And Panay doesn't think it's going back. The big(ger) screen is here to stay.

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"Three years ago, the PC was something super practical," Panay said. Smartphones had become the must-have device, the one that felt the most personal and most important to users. Everything revolved around smartphones. For many people, PCs had been relegated to the realm of Serious Work only, and sometimes not even that: Panay remembered asking his daughter Sophie a few years ago if she wanted a Surface, and getting resoundingly brushed off. "She was like, 'I don't need one, Dad, I've got my phone.'" Now, Panay said he's gotten the last laugh. "She lives on her PC. She connects with her friends on her PC, she does her homework on her PC, she gets her information from the PC."

The way Panay sees it, a PC has two jobs: "to connect us and empower us." Adapting to everything that this means became a core idea of Windows 11. Teams is baked into the core of the OS, making calls and messages a one-click feature. The Windows Store is more open and permissive than ever, even including other app stores. Microsoft has worked on its ability to sync files, features and settings across devices. When users plug in a monitor, their PC will remember how they had organized the screen the last time that monitor was plugged in. When they hit the Start button, the menu recommends the apps users want to use. Windows 11 is designed for all five of what Panay calls "the five senses of input," too: writing with a pen, typing with a keyboard, swiping with a mouse, speaking with a microphone and poking with a touchscreen. "They will remain critical," Panay said, "and they will be more ubiquitous than ever in the sense that you just transition from one to the other and you don't think about it, you don't get blocked, nothing slows you down."

One of the operating system's more ambitious features is its news feed, a persistent page of widgets that users can drag over top of whatever they're doing. Right now, that's all it is, but watch that space. "I think it's part of hybrid work," Panay said. "How often are you just like, 'I need a break?' And your break is, you pick up your phone." Microsoft is integrating Android apps to prevent that from being necessary, but Panay also imagines the feed as a place to check out without looking away, to make the same screen feel different without losing a user's place. Microsoft may be a company mostly focused on helping people get stuff done at work, but Windows 11 attempts to be a study in work-life balance.

That's much easier said than done, of course. (You know what they say about the jack of all trades.) Throw in 35 years of Windows history, millions of users with deep muscle memory on how to use their devices and a corporate user base that is not exactly well known for its willingness to learn new things, and it can sometimes feel like the Windows team is always either removing features people love or allowing endless crust to build around outdated ideas in the operating system. Such is life at scale, Panay said. "It's also incredibly humbling to be responsible for removing a feature that 10 million people use and want right now, but a billion people maybe need something different. That's never taken lightly. It can't be, because you have to respect that history."

The challenge for Panay, and for Microsoft as a whole, is to figure out how to deliver power without it feeling like complexity. Historically, Windows has been all over the map on that front, but Panay said he's confident Windows 11 is on the right path. "It'll feel like something you already know, but it'll also feel emotional and great to be there because it's modernized, it's new, the materials are beautiful."

As Microsoft attempts to take on Google and Apple, expect choice and openness to continue to be ongoing themes of the fight. The company hopes to woo developers by taking lower commissions and making them jump through fewer hoops; it hopes to win over users by offering them lots of devices, at lots of prices, that can work any way users want. Giving them that choice and agency without overwhelming them or bogging them down will be crucial to the success of Windows 11, but Panay said Microsoft's ready to do the work.

"The one thing we can guarantee," he said, "is the world's not staying static. But there will be truths still: We will still be working, we'll still be learning, we'll still be teaching, we'll still need to connect. If you get to that innate sense, these products are ready for that."


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Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

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