Panos Panay has always been the force behind Microsoftâs Surface line. He helped bring Surface to life as a secret project more than 10 years ago. Heâs presented the new devices onstage at events, showed up at malls to promote Surface hardware, and has steered Microsoftâs Surface tablets to success in the years since.
Now, heâs leaving in a surprise departure announced just days before Microsoftâs next big Surface event. Panay will no longer be presenting at Microsoftâs showcase on Thursday but will remain at the company for another couple of weeks as part of a transition process. Heâs reportedly joining Amazon to replace Dave Limp and lead Amazonâs Echo and Alexa push. Amazon is also holding its own hardware event on Wednesday.
Panay has spent the past decade largely focused on Surface devices after Microsoft first developed its tablet as a Windows-powered rival to Appleâs iPad. The Surface Pro tablet, which started off as a string and plastic concept, has had a lasting influence on Windows laptops, pushing Microsoftâs OEM partners and rivals to focus on quality and 2-in-1 devices. The lineâs success brought Panay into the role of Microsoftâs chief product officer.
The Surface Pro has had a lasting effect on Windows laptops.Photo by AmeliaÂ
With Panayâs shock resignation, Microsoftâs event in New York City will now offer the first glimpse at the future of Windows and Surface under new leadership. Microsoft is expected to unveil three new Surface devices but also focus on AI-powered features for Surface, Windows, Office, Bing, and more.
Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoftâs consumer marketing head, will now take on the responsibility of leading the Windows and Surface businesses and products externally. Crucially, Mehdiâs job title hasnât changed with Panayâs departure here, so Microsoft no longer has a chief product officer.
With no clear replacement for Panayâs unique role at Microsoft, it seems like Mehdi will take on his responsibilities of being the main face of Windows and Surface devices. Whereas Panay is a product maker, Mehdi has, more often than not, been the marketing guy for Microsoftâs various consumer efforts.
He first joined Microsoft in 1992, working on product management for Internet Explorer and Windows before helping lead Microsoftâs entry into search with Bing. His career at Microsoft has spanned three different CEOs â Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and Satya Nadella â and a variety of different product launches. Heâs been involved in Surface, the Windows 10 launch, and the HoloLens headset.
Yusuf Mehdi is no strange to consumers.
Mehdi was also at the center of Microsoftâs failed TV push for Xbox and the launch of the Xbox One console. Later, he was in charge of a âmodern lifeâ initiative to try and win back the consumers Microsoft had let down, following the companyâs decisions to kill off its Groove Music service, discontinue Kinect, scrap itsÂ Microsoft Band fitness device, and even discontinueÂ Windows Phone. Microsoft eventually laid off its modern life team during cuts last year.
Microsoft is splitting up some of Panayâs other responsibilities. Pavan Davuluri, who heads a team focused on silicon, systems, and devices across Windows and cloud, will now report directly to Rajesh Jha, Microsoftâs vice president of experience and devices. This team includes key Surface talent like Ralf Groene, Stevie Bathiche, and Robin Seiler. Pavan will also take on Windows planning and release management responsibility.
Interestingly, Microsoft is also building a new âWindows and Web Experiencesâ team. Microsoft often forms these types of teams when it wants to tackle a particular new area for Windows, and this time, itâs building AI-powered web services for Windows. Weâve already seen Microsoft pivot towards web-powered features in Windows 11, with basic things like the search interface dynamically updating from the web, a widgets system, and more. So expect to see a lot more of this in the future.
Mikhail Parakhin, who has been focused on Bing Chat in recent months, is leading this new experiences team, and it will include executives who have a history in product management, engineering, and Microsoftâs cross-devices Android work.
Microsoft is about to launch its Windows Copilot.
These Windows and Surface leaders will now steer Microsoftâs operating system and hardware toward AI. Itâs what Microsoft wants people to get excited about right now and something weâre likely to see a lot of at the companyâs event on Thursday. Microsoft has been increasingly trying to use Windows as a vehicle for its AI efforts or to try and push Bing and Edge onto consumers and businesses alike.
I interviewed key Surface members last year for a story on 10 years of Surface, and it was clear from speaking to them that AI was going to have a big impact on Windows and Surface for the next decade to come. There have been persistent rumorsÂ about the company building its own Arm chips for servers and Surface PCs, and even rival AI chips to avoid a costly reliance on Nvidia.
âAI is going to reinvent how you do everything on Windows,â Panay said earlier this year. Panay wonât be at Microsoft anymore to lead this reinvention of how you use Windows. But his resignation hasnât signaled a strategy shift or change in direction for Windows at Microsoft, from what I can tell.
The Surface Smart Camera is one of Microsoftâs best examples of AI use.
The question right now is around how Microsoft continues to innovate on the hardware side. Panay was always a devices fan, having led the Surface Pro development that has seen companies like Apple, Dell, and Asus produce their own Surface-like devices. But Microsoft signaled changes in its hardware portfolio earlier this year amid layoffs. Is there still room for Surface to do innovative laptop and tablet designs like weâve seen over the last decade, or does Microsoftâs push for AI overshadow the risky hardware bets?
Microsoft is rumored to haveÂ scrapped plans for a dual-screen Surface Duo 3, years after effectively canceling its Windows-powered Surface Neo dual-screen device. Itâs not clear what the future holds for Microsoftâs own Android efforts. The original Surface Duo just reached end of life with just two Android version updates. Microsoftâs mice, keyboards, and webcams have also been discontinued in favor of Surface accessories.
Microsoft also invested heavily in Windows 11 during the pandemic and the PC sales boom, but Surface and devices revenue has been battered this year as PC shipments experienced big declines. Before the PC pandemic boom, Nadella was alsoÂ looking at a future beyond Windows, iOS, and Android. He joked in January 2020 that Windows could be called âAzure Edgeâ in the future to make it clear that cloud services are the biggest hardware business at Microsoft.
Will we continue to see Microsoft experiment boldly with Surface hardware like the canceled Neo?
During the FTC v. MicrosoftÂ hearing, we heard that Microsoft wants to move Windows fully to the cloud on the consumer side, something it has been increasingly doing on the commercial side with Windows 365. The formation of a new web-focused Windows team suggests this effort is very much in motion.
Perhaps this uncertainty around the PC business after a big boom in sales has led Panay back to just wanting to build devices rather than the complicated task of running Windows and gearing it up for AI and a future in the cloud.
All of this will be top of mind watching how Microsoft discusses Windows and Surface at its event on Thursday. Weâre entering a new AI era for Windows and Microsoftâs many services, and it will be key to see exactly how Surface plays its part without one of its key inventors at the helm.