In 2012, Microsoft wasn’t a major player in tablets at all. It’d experimented with touch PCs for years. It’d even created a version of Windows PCs made specifically for tablets. None of its hardware partners were able to create a design that users could get excited about. Apple walked in with its revolutionary iPad design and made the tablet what it is today. In 2012, Microsoft introduced the first Surface tablets to the world. It took the company a few years to get it right, but eventually it did. Now it’s hard to get away from talk of a Surface Phone.
The Surface Phone is a longtime dream of Microsoft fans that is somewhat based on reality. Microsoft quietly sunset the line of Lumia smartphones that it purchased from Nokia in 2014. Since then, it’s had nothing to compete directly with the iPhone or Google Pixel. Rumors indicate — and fans — believe that a smartphone designed by the same team that handles the Surface tablets might offer a new way to get things done that smartphone buyers could appreciate, maybe even love.
A year ago, the Surface Phone seemed like a device that Microsoft never planned to deliver. Today, things have changed. Microsoft’s CEO is discussing exciting new developments for the company in mobile. The Surface Team has proven that it can successfully introduce new types of devices that’ll make technology enthusiasts take notice with the Surface Book, Surface Pro and Surface Studio.
It’s actually possible – some even say it’s likely – that Microsoft will release a Surface Phone in the next year. Here’s what we think we know about that mythical device, and why anyone that has an iPhone or Android device right now might want to hear what Microsoft could have to say about the Surface Phone.
Why A Surface Phone?
Despite all the confusion around whether Microsoft can or will launch a Surface Phone, one line of speculation has always remained constant. If the Surface Phone does launch, it’ll be because Microsoft’s hardware designers have thought through the things that doomed its Lumia line of smartphones.
For all the things that the Lumia offered before they became mainstream, Living Images, integrated wireless charging, sensitive screens with Tap to Wake options, they all were just smartphones trying to compete with the iPhone. Every year, Nokia pumped out a new Lumia that it hoped would address the needs that market research told the company users buying iPhones cared about. The PureView imaging technology and camera app were direct responses to people taking more pictures with their phones than they did their camera, for example. None of these features were enough to overcome the “me too” feeling they gave off.
Microsoft hardware teams are united around productivity. In an email sent out to employees and leaked by ZDNet back in 2014, CEO Satya Nadella made that mission perfectly clear. “At our core, Microsoft is the productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world. We will reinvent productivity to empower every person and every organization on the planet to do more and achieve more.”
That line of thinking extends to all of the hardware that Microsoft makes. The Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book aren’t just competitors to the MacBook and the iPad. They also add a new twist to an established product that allow users to get things done.
Speaking to the Australian Financial Review, Nadella shared more insight on mobile devices. Specifically, he confirmed that Microsoft will stay in smartphones, but attempt to add something new to the mix.
“We don’t want to be driven by just envy of what others have, the question is, what can we bring? That’s where I look at any device form factor or any technology, even AI. We will continue to be in the phone market not as defined by today’s market leaders, but by what it is that we can uniquely do in what is the most ultimate mobile device,” he said.
Why You Might Want a Surface Phone
So what does the “ultimate mobile device” really mean? Apparently, it means leveraging Microsoft’s only strength in Windows. It’s the only company that offers an almost unified experience for desktops, notebooks, tablets and smartphones.
ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley reports that Microsoft is hard at work on a technology it’s calling Cobalt. According to sources that have spoken with her, Cobalt will let devices that use typical smartphone processors emulate a processor from a notebook, desktop or tablet. A smartphone using Cobalt could be placed into a dock and used as a desktop PC, complete with programs that only a desktop or notebook can run today.
High-end smartphones running Windows 10 can pretend to be a desktop PC when connected to a large display. Microsoft calls the feature, Continuum for Phones. It’s been steadily improving it with each software update. When you connect a Lumia 950 or HP Elite X3, you get a desktop, plus mouse capabilities and full screen apps. One thing that you don’t get is access to desktop apps like iTunes. Cobalt, if accurately described by Foley, would fix that.
Suddenly, you could carry just a single device. Imagine a phone that could plug into a notebook dock or a desktop that could become a phone. Syncing would be unnecessary because you’d be carrying around the same device all the time.
The possibilities fit right in with the Surface model. The Surface Pro 4 is the tablet that can replace your laptop. The Surface Book is the notebook that can become a tablet. Why not shouldn’t Microsoft offer a Surface Phone that can replace your notebook or workstation entirely? No other company offers something like that today.
When a Surface Phone Might Arrive
When will the Surface Phone launch? That’s what everyone is trying to figure out right now. The truth is that we have no clue.
Microsoft has already begun clearing out the last of its Lumia devices. At a hardware event in October, the company didn’t have anything to say about new iPhone alternatives running Windows 10. It did show off the HP Elite X3 though, a phone that includes support for Continuum for Phones.
Allegedly, Cobalt won’t be ready until the launch of Windows 10 Redstone 3. A free software update to Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile. It’s not expected to be detailed until the summer of 2017. Reportedly, Microsoft doesn’t even expect the software upgrade to be ready until the fall. The company is hard at work on Windows 10 Redstone 2, or what we now know as the Windows 10 Creators Update. The Creators Update will launch this upcoming spring.
It should be noted that Satya Nadella does have an established history of delaying or killing hardware products that he doesn’t think will be successful in the long run. The Surface Pro 3 was to launch alongside a Surface Mini back in 2014. Nadella killed the device the weekend before its debut, reportedly. Microsoft accidentally confirmed the existence of the device in help documentation that came with early Surface Pro 3 models.