10 reasons to love the secret Surface Phone

The rumor mill says Microsoft is working on a dual-screen, clamshell Windows 10 mobile device. Just don’t call it ‘Courier.’

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Microsoft phones failed.

Windows Mobile, Windows Phone, Windows 10 Mobile — all too little, too late.

But I think Microsoft could succeed with its next device.

Rumor has it that Microsoft is working on a two-screen clamshell mobile device code-named Andromeda that may be branded the “Surface Phone.” (The more likely branding may be “Surface Pad,” or something like that, to de-emphasize the phone function.)

I believe the rumors are true and predict this device could even be teased at Microsoft’s Build Conference in Seattle May 7.

From Microsoft’s perspective, creating a new mobile device is an existential necessity. Apple is threatening Microsoft’s enterprise business with a steady infiltration by iPhone and iPad. These client devices invite all kinds of non-Microsoft solutions into the enterprise. Something must be done.

Microsoft would likely fail in a fair fight against Apple with conventional phones or tablets. So Microsoft needs to offer a very appealing, business-friendly device that breaks all the rules.

Going further, I think the Surface Phone is just what the mobile market needs — just what you need — and for the following 10 reasons:

1. Phones and tablets are boring

In the world’s hottest and previously fastest-growing smartphone market, China, smartphone shipments just dropped 21%.

Globally, tablet sales fell by 6.5% in the fourth quarter of last year.

The industry is nervous.

There are many reasons for slowing sales. But the biggest, in my opinion, is that users are bored with glass rectangles.

Companies are trying to thrill with crazy innovations. But for the mainstream business market, the solution will need to thrill with convenience, practicality, flexibility and innovation.

2. Clamshell is the perfect mobile form factor

The big challenge in smartphone design is this: How can you design the smallest possible device with the biggest possible screen?

Companies such as Apple and Samsung are working hard to reduce bezels. We’re now on the brink of zero-bezel smartphones. Once that goal is reached, screens on phones will be as large as they can possibly be on any given device size.

Achieving zero bezel, even if it’s only on one edge, also enables phone makers to double the screen real estate by using two screens side-by-side. When two screens on a clamshell device can actually touch when opened, they can function as a single, bigger screen.

3. The pen is back

The future of the stylus looked grim in 2007, when Steve Jobs persuasively proclaimed that “nobody wants a stylus.” Nobody continued to want a stylus, apparently, until Apple announced it’s iPad Pro Apple Pencil stylus in the fall of 2015.

One analyst firm, Rosenblatt Securities, predicts that a future “iPhone X Plus” may offer hardware support for a stylus, which would be sold separately.

And Samsung’s Galaxy Note line, which supports an included pen, has proved popular among some users.

The pen is back, and some business users are looking for a pen-based mobile that’s more innovative than a simple smartphone with a pen.

4. Combining pen and finger gestures is a Microsoft strength

Microsoft has always been obsessed with styluses, and has conducted deep R&D on pen-and-touch gestures over the years.

While Apple currently views pen input as a tool for creatives, Samsung and Microsoft have always viewed styluses as a business tool, a natural way to take notes.

Microsoft has envisioned for years a new world of tools conjured up on screens by using the fingers on one hand and a pen in the other. For example, touching a word, object or photo with a finger, then tapping anywhere on screen with a pen duplicates the item touched. It’s a gesture combination that achieves copy-and-paste in a fraction of a second.

5. The on-screen keyboard revolution is coming

We’re on the brink of a revolution in all mobile devices, where physical keyboards will be phased out of the core laptops and tablet keyboard covers just as they were on smartphones. (They’ll still be used as peripheral devices for those times when people want to do some serious typing.)

Artificial intelligence, advanced haptics and innovation in screen design will make the world safe for dual-screen devices and on-screen keyboards.

6. Microsoft has killer hinge technology

Hinge technology has become such a big deal at Microsoft that the company employs a team of hinge designers and engineers they call the “hingineers.”

The latest in a long line of dual-screen mobile hinge patents, published this week, not only enables the two screens to touch in the middle when opened, but also addresses the many “modes” and orientations of such a device.

Because to Microsoft ...

7. … hinge orientation is a ‘gesture’

Microsoft’s new patent describes “hinge gestures,” which means that when you combine how far open the clamshell is with the orientation of the device, you get “gestures” that inform how the user interface works and even which applications are running.

For example, when the clamshell is closed, the device could start playing the current song, podcast or audio book. When opened with the screen straight up, it could be in bedside alarm clock mode. When tilted back a little, it could place an onscreen keyboard on the bottom screen. When kept at that angle, but picked up and held vertically, it could go into e-book mode. When opened out flat, it could go into all-screen tablet mode. And when hyperextended and placed on a table like an upside-down “V,” the device could either display the same screen on both sides for group viewing or display a PowerPoint presentation on one side with notes on the other.

And that means ...

8. … Courier is a feature, not a product

Remember the Microsoft Courier project? We learned about it eight and a half years ago when a CGI demo leaked. The technology didn’t exist back then to create a compelling all-purpose dual-screen clamshell device. Bezels were huge. Processors were weak. And Microsoft’s operating systems weren’t ready for it. So instead, Microsoft compromised, and envisioned an electronic notebook, a kind of digital Moleskine.

The Courier project was really a bundle of technologies that Microsoft had been working on in the lab for years, including interface and hardware technologies. Microsoft Research continued working on those technologies, and radically improved versions of them will show up in the “Surface Phone” — if they haven’t shown up in Windows 10 already.

Ultimately, Microsoft terminated the Courier product mainly because it didn’t fit into the “one Windows” vision. (The prototype reportedly ran a custom version of Windows CE.)

The “Surface Phone,” however, does support the “one Windows” vision. It’s almost certainly Windows Core OS with C-Shell, which enables Windows to run on many different hardware devices.

The Courier idea isn’t dead, however. A Courier-like “digital Moleskine” will simply appear when you launch Microsoft OneNote on the “Surface Phone.”

9. Microsoft even has interesting camera technology

Microsoft isn’t normally associated with innovation in mobile camera technology. But a very interesting set of ideas emerged in Microsoft patents this month, including one for how a camera might work in a clamshell device.

As we’ve seen from Apple and other devices, thin phones are at odds with camera electronics, resulting in a pandemic of protruding camera parts.

Microsoft’s patent covers the idea of a front-facing camera that protrudes, but with an indent on the other side to accommodate that protrusion when the device is closed.

(That same patent points out that Microsoft’s clamshell idea would support optional external keyboards and mice.)

10. Microsoft is better off in business

Microsoft phones failed in part because of the company’s historic difficulty succeeding in the mass consumer mobile market.

The company’s real strength is in the enterprise. And that’s where it could succeed with the “Surface Phone.”

Microsoft this week announced that it will discontinue Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams and Yammer on the Windows Phone platform. (There were also reports that Microsoft finally sold out of its Windows Phone inventory, but those were premature.)

That sounds to me as if Microsoft is getting its business apps off those old-and-busted phones in order to make room for the new hotness: the coming dual-screen, clamshell Windows 10 business device.

Microsoft’s mainstream consumer phones — all those devices with “Windows” in the name — failed. But the company’s more business-oriented mobile devices — products with “Surface” in the name — have done much better. The company just announced that third-quarter Surface earnings were up 32% over the previous year.

I believe the rumored “Surface Phone” could be a winner for Microsoft — and an innovative new business tool for you and me.

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