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How Microsoft developed 'The Frankenstein' device in the midst of a pandemic

As a result of the pandemic, Microsoft (MSFT) closed its Redmond, Washington offices in March 2020, and the Surface team snatched up whatever they could for their home offices. There were a small number of engineers and product designers who worked on The Frankenstein, a prototype for a transformable laptop that was built in conjunction with Windows 11.

The mysterious device had already spent three years in Microsoft's development lab and was scheduled to ship on October 5, 2021, the same day that the company planned to release its first major software update in six years on the Windows operating system. The Frankenstein, on the other hand, was far from finished: Surface Pro, a laptop-to-tablet device with new sensors and an updated keyboard and trackpad on the bottom, was used to hold the pieces together during assembly. Among other things, it required updates to the lock screen, the woven hinge, and the face tracking system on the device.

After a year and a half, that device — now known as the Surface Laptop Studio — has emerged as the centerpiece of Microsoft's fall product lineup, which was unveiled on Wednesday during a virtual press event hosted by the company.

The $1,599 device, according to Microsoft, can be transformed into whatever you want it to be. When the laptop is in the laptop position, it behaves like a standard notebook. When in Stage mode, users can dock the 14.4-inch touchscreen into a docking station, which is ideal for playing games or streaming TV shows at an angle while using the device. Its final mode, Studio, transforms the computer into a blank canvas for drawing, sketching, and other forms of creative expression on the fly. Its features are intended to entice professional developers and content creators to join.

While the hardware design isn't entirely novel — Lenovo, for example, has attempted similar transformable devices in the past — Microsoft wants to demonstrate to consumers that it is capable of providing something truly ground-breaking. It is consistent with the company's broader strategy of launching hybrid devices, which was reinforced by a number of other updates to the company's laptop-turned-tablet products that were announced during the conference.

Although Microsoft was able to complete the product design and bring it to market, they were faced with the constraints of pandemic as well as supply chain difficulties.

As CNN Business reported, the Surface Laptop Studio team decided to drop one of several Frankenstein prototypes off at each other's doorsteps during the early days of the pandemic, rather than collaborate with colleagues in person during that time. Once they had been thoroughly cleaned, Microsoft (MSFT) employees would take them into their homes to be tested.

After that, there were difficulties with the parts themselves. Besides being unable to visit its factory in China to check on production due to supply chain constraints, the team also faced other challenges. In order to solve those problems in real time, "we had factory team members on the ground put on Microsoft's mixed reality headsets," said Angela Krauskopf, senior director of engineering at Microsoft. "We had factory team members on the ground put on Microsoft's mixed reality headsets, because we typically would have been there to solve those problems on the production line," she added. This was a piece of technology [that assisted in the process] because we couldn't travel at the time and still can't."

The Studio device is intended to combine the power of a desktop computer for use at home or at work with the portability of a laptop computer. Some of the Surface Laptop Studio's most beautiful features are hidden in the finer details, such as: The bump on the hinge is small, and the design team claims that it took careful precision to get it just right. When not in use, the second-generation Surface Slim Pen is stored neatly beneath the keyboard, where it charges and vibrates through the fingertips, just as you would feel when using a traditional pencil. Depending on which mode you're using, the content is slightly more or less optimized.

It also runs Windows 11, which has undergone a major redesign and includes new tools for multitasking, photos, and widgets — including a customizable feed powered by artificial intelligence.

Aside from the difficulties posed by the pandemic, the Surface Laptop Studio was a labor of love that took years to complete. Prior to the virtual event, Panos Panay, the chief product officer at Microsoft, spoke with CNN Business about the design process. "A lot went into it because you don't want any moment where the product doesn't feel perfect in any posture at any given time," Panay said. "Over the course of several months, the hinge work across Surface Studio, the detach work on Surface Book, the pen's haptics, and when you put the pen down, you actually feel friction — all of this has been building. All of this technology has been in the works for four to five years. There is a great deal of patience."

However, even though the Surface Laptop Studio will begin shipping on October 5, issues with the supply chain could still have an impact on how quickly Microsoft is able to deliver devices to customers. "There is a genuine scarcity," Panay stated. "Every single day, we put in the effort to overcome it. I'm concerned that it will sell out and that we will not be able to accommodate everyone. However, we are constructing as many as we can."

Other Surface line updates that will be included with Windows 11 were also demonstrated at the event on Wednesday, according to Microsoft. The Surface Pro 8 ($1099) is now twice as fast as its predecessor, and it includes four Thunderbolt ports as well as a new screen with better viewing angles. The Surface Go 3 ($399), Microsoft's entry-level tablet, boasts a faster processor, longer battery life, and the option of LTE connectivity, among other features. The Surface Pro X ($899), a laptop-tablet hybrid, is now available in a Wi-Fi-only configuration, and the Surface Duo 2, a 5G foldable smartphone, boasts a larger split-display, an updated Qualcomm processor, and an upgraded camera system, among other improvements.

In addition, the Surface adapter kit (price to be determined) includes key cap and bump labels, port indicators and laptop openers, all of which are designed to make Surface products more accessible to people with disabilities.

Microsoft's Surface line of hardware devices is still lagging behind Apple's in terms of performance, but it has made significant strides in recent years. In terms of detachable keyboards, displays, and all-in-one designs, "Its innovation around detachable keyboards, displays, and all-in-one designs created new segments that competitors have followed," said Geoff Blaber, CEO of market research firm CCS Insight. Microsoft, on the other hand, faces a difficult task in convincing consumers that the company has something more to offer than just productivity software.

During the time that the Surface Laptop Studio team was getting vaccinated and lockdowns were lifted, they returned to the office on a periodic basis. (Microsoft has decided to postpone its planned return to the United States for an indefinite period of time.) In contrast to Apple, which operates in such secrecy that many employees are unaware of what is going on in other departments, Microsoft's lab is a large open studio space where employees are surrounded by product designers and developers working on all of the company's major products and services. The designers are located near 20 manufacturing units for machinists, who are in close proximity to the painting workshop and other facilities.

For example, if a designer has an idea, they can sketch it out on a piece of paper or a whiteboard, hand it off to a machinist who can build it out of metal, and then hand it off to a painter who will paint it after it's been built. VP of Microsoft Devices Pete Kyriacou stated that "the following day, our idea is on the table for us to stand around and talk about it." "The testers are also right there," says the author.

Panay stated that this type of collaboration helps to propel the Surface brand forward, despite the fact that some in the industry believe that general innovation in the tech industry has slowed. In every point, Panay explained, "there is a signal of technology coming down the road that people aren't yet aware of." "There are still needs that people tell us about today that have not yet been met by the resources we have. That's a door that's wide open to me."

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