Why Microsoft’s Mobile Strategy is Unclear

At the October 2, 2019, Surface Event, Microsoft finally revealed to the world what they have been working on. Back in February 2018, I wrote a blog article explaining why Microsoft has the best long term mobile strategy despite the failure of their Windows 10 Mobile platform. Microsoft will be making phones again, but it is not what I thought. This article is an update to the original article given the latest information from the Surface Event.

First, I want to expand on a computing vision that the original blog article discussed. Back in 2015, when the first Windows 10 Mobile phones came out, Microsoft made a video showing the new Lumia 950 series phones. In the video, a man sets his phone on the table. On the table was a high definition TV, and a wireless keyboard and mouse. The phone presumably connects to the TV with Miracast, and the keyboard and mouse connect with Bluetooth. The Windows 10 Mobile device goes into Continuum mode where something very similar to Windows 10 desktop was presented on the TV. The man was then able to use his phone pretty much like a desktop computer and was shown running Office and searching the web like he was on Windows 10.

This was not a concept video. The Lumia 950 phones running Windows 10 Mobile could actually do this back in 2015. UWP apps that where engineered for various form factors could scale from phone to desktop beautifully. Though they retired Windows 10 Mobile, I was under the assumption this form factor agnostic vision would be refined with a new version of Windows based on Windows Core OS. This new version of Windows we now know is called Windows 10X.

Microsoft showed off their new Surface Duo phone at the event. This is essentially the dual screen Surface Andromeda that was leaked several years back. The big surprise is the Surface Duo is running Android. The Surface Andromeda had been initially developed to run an earlier version of Windows 10X. It seems Microsoft decided to switch to Android to increase the marketability of the Surface Duo. The Microsoft Store does not have anywhere near the apps in Google Play. If the Surface Duo ran Windows 10X, people would most likely still need either an Android or iOS phone for mobile app workflows. Microsoft is presuming only the most die hard Surface fans would buy a Surface Duo running Windows 10X due to limitations with apps. The mobile app landscape is slowing changing to be web based instead of native. This happened with PCs decades ago where web apps slowly replaced native programs. Native programs remain, and always will, but most work on the PC is done through the browser. This will be true for mobile in time. When that occurs, the OS platform will not be as relevant when it comes to app availability.

Prior to the Surface Event, I thought Microsoft was on track to make a pocket PC as their long-term mobile strategy. Is the dream of a pocket PC dead? Will we have to continue to live in a form factor fragmented computing world? The fragmented computing world of today has us using Windows on devices with screens 10 inches or above, but then when we go smaller, we have to switch devices, operating systems, accounts, and apps. This is expensive, time consuming, and more complicated. I think with Microsoft putting Android on the Surface Duo (instead of the initially intended Windows 10X), it makes the Windows pocket PC dream ambiguous, but does not rule it out for the long term.

The vision I have for the future is where each person of a household only has a single computing device. This single device would be in the form factor of a pocketable device. To use other form factors, the household would have a 2-in-1 lapdock and a dual monitor docking station for shared use. A 2-in-1 lapdock looks like a 2-in-1 laptop/tablet, but does not have the computing internals. It has monitor, keyboard, standard ports, power supply, and battery. You would use a USB-C or Thunderbolt cable to connect the pocket PC to the 2-in-1 lapdock. Connecting the pocket PC to the 2-in-1 lapdock would essentially enlarge the form factor of the pocket PC. The OS, accounts, settings, and installed apps would of course be identical. To get a full desktop experience, household members would plug their pocket PC into the docking station. Here you would get two large monitors, a full-size keyboard, and mouse. The docking station would also have ports for even more peripherals. Here, once again, the form factor is even more enlarged for maximum multitasking and productivity, but the computer itself has not changed. In this type of arrangement, apps would need to support multiple form factors. The UWP app development technology allows multiple form factor support.

I think the computing vision described above is simpler and more cost effective. In your household today, how many computing devices do you have? It would not be unusual to have 2 to 3 devices per person. Each person generally is managing multiple devices, multiple operating systems, multiple accounts, large form factor apps, small form factor apps, and the thousands of settings across multiple operating systems and apps of different form factors. This takes a lot of time and money to manage! There is also the time it takes to learn operating systems and apps. It typically takes me a few months of using an app to work out all the use cases and configuration permutations. During this break-in period, I am experimenting with settings, and fumbling with usage. This learning curve is real and costs time. The pocket PC vision promises a single computing device per person. You only have to set up, organize, and master a single device, but you can extend your form factor through these docking devices. I thought Microsoft was set to fulfill the pocket PC vision. With the Surface Duo running Android, things are unclear.

Microsoft may have a trick up their sleeve. I think they will provide support for UWP apps to run on Android and iOS. This will allow you to use the same app on Windows as you do on your Android and iOS device. This will help bring a unified app eco system closer to reality provided it incentivizes developers to develop UWP apps. But porting the UWP runtime and UWP apps to other platforms does not really complete the single device per person vision. You will still need a separate device for small form factor.

If you had a large “Columbo” style coat with an oversize interior pocket, the Surface Neo would fit into it. Could you consider the Surface Neo a pocket PC then? For people that didn’t see the Surface Event, the Surface Neo is the larger version of Surface Duo. The Surface Neo though runs Windows 10X. The Surface Neo is mobile, but just not pocketable in a standard pants pocket. I still think this is a pretty good accomplishment. You could get down to two devices per person. Right now, I’m not sold on the Surface Neo dual screen form factor. If I had my choice, I would want the guts of the Neo put into a Surface Go form factor. Todays Surface Go is mobile and can dock to larger monitors. My blog article goes in-depth about the capabilities and versatility of the Surface Go.

I am bothered by the fact Microsoft has a prototype of the Surface Duo running Windows 10X. Windows 10X was originally intended as the operating system for the Surface Duo. Would the Surface Duo running Windows 10X sell as a consumer phone? Probably not. But would the Surface Duo sell as an Enterprise pocket PC? I think that would slowly gain traction in the Enterprise market and then spread to the consumer market. I could see hospitals using a Windows 10X Surface Duo where users are moving around a lot, but then can dock at a shared docking station to get multi-tasking intensive work done. Microsoft can deliver something new here. Google and Apple are not able to delivery something like this in the near term. I think Microsoft should offer the Surface Duo with an Intel and Windows 10X variant to sell alongside with the ARM and Android version. Microsoft would not be really competing with phones. They would be offering a new type of device. Microsoft can bypass getting back into the phone race and beat everyone to market with a fully featured pocket PC. But will they do this? That unfortunately is unclear.

Copyright © 2019 by Jeffery Lewis. All rights reserved.
Published by WalletCard.org.

 

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