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For Microsoft, 2018 could be a big year in mobile — but not phones

Microsoft Surface logo
Microsoft Surface logo (Image credit: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

With the demise of Windows on phones, a spotlight has been cast on Microsoft regarding its place in the mobile world. Microsoft has rightly been criticized for flubbing its phone endeavor, putting at risk one of the pillars of the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) for its app strategy.

Putting that aside, it is interesting to note that Microsoft has a lot on its plate for 2018 with Windows and 4G LTE. While this is not entirely a plan for phones, it does suggest Microsoft has a new strategy to succeed in the increasingly mobile tech world.

A tale of three PCs with LTE

Surface Pro 5

Surface Pro (2017) is getting an LTE variant that goes on sale soon according to Microsoft. (Image credit: Windows Central)

Microsoft has no plans for devices in the smartphone category, but that doesn't mean cellular LTE and 4G are not on the plate.

There are three categories Microsoft is playing up this year that involve 4G LTE:

  1. Pro: Surface Pro 4G LTE (and other traditional Windows Pro laptops).
  2. ARM (New): Windows 10 on ARM, a.k.a., Always Connected PCs.
  3. Foldable (New): Microsoft's rumored "Andromeda" dual-screen tablet.

Microsoft is expected to begin pushing Surface Pro 4G LTE in the consumer space very soon. Previously, the Surface Pro 4G LTE was only available in the business arena, but Microsoft will be offering the device to retail for anyone who wants one.

This isn't the first time Microsoft has had an LTE-enabled Surface (see Surface 3), but it is the first Surface Pro with LTE, and that makes a big difference due to the OS and processing power.

The 'cellular PC' revolution begins: Full Windows 10 coming to mobile ARM chips

Microsoft's Always-Connected PC initiative is also a big deal. For the first time, Windows 10 – the full OS – will run on the same processors found in your smartphone. Early reports highlight the instant-on ability (like the iPad) and battery life that lasts weeks instead of a day.

The HP Envy x2 with Windows 10 on ARM tablets launches in March, 2018.

The HP Envy x2 with Windows 10 on ARM tablets launches in March, 2018.

HP should be the first out the gate with its Envy x2 tablet in early March. Marrying the flexibility of Windows 10 with the efficiency of ARM processors, it is a very intriguing option for those who want a PC with an iPad-like experience.

Interestingly, Always-Connected PCs fit nicely in the middle between a full Intel Core "pro" device and what's rumored to be Microsoft's biggest play in mobile: Andromeda.

Andromeda is a rumored folding tablet – small enough to fit in your pocket, but large enough to get more serious work done – and it's expected to also feature Windows Core OS (WCOS). WCOS is full Windows 10 minus all the "bloat" and legacy support from older Win32 systems, which have no place in the truly mobile world. (We do expect Win32 app support via streaming and eventually local virtualization, plus Centennial apps, however).

While Microsoft is expected to be the first with such a form factor, it's not meant to be a one-off creation. Other companies like Dell, HP, Lenovo and more are expected to follow in 2019 with their own twists on this new category of digital journaling. This strategy mirrors the original Surface initiative to jumpstart the 2-in-1 PC category, which is now one of the most popular in the market.

4G LTE – why now?

Perhaps the most interesting question is why this sudden push? Laptops with 3G and 4G modems have been around for years, though they've been mostly reserved for the enterprise space.

A lot of this has to do with converging technologies and shifting job strategies, including:

  • 4G LTE being nearly ubiquitous in significant markets.
  • The rise of embedded-SIM (eSIM) technology.
  • "Pay as you go" carrier data plans.
  • Merging of cellular abilities into Windows 10 (instead of Windows 10 Mobile).
  • Demand from consumers and workers for always-connected PCs.

A decade ago, it was common for workers to have a business laptop and a personal one for home. This sharp dividing-line between home and work has mostly eroded for many people.

So-called Millennials and Generation X people are some of the first to enter a highly flexible, almost nomadic work environment. For them, their jobs are wherever they are now. The companies they work for change every few years. A computing solution that reflects that world is increasingly needed.

Smartphones often supplant this requirement for mobile computing, but those devices grew out of a different world with different desires. While they can do a lot, ultimately many must fall back to a "real" PC or Mac at some point. And while those laptops are getting improved battery life the consistent need for Wi-Fi (or using a cellular hotspot) keep them at a distance from smartphones.

A patent from Microsoft that may resemble 'Andromeda'.

A patent from Microsoft that may resemble 'Andromeda'.

The rise of eSIM tech changes the game. Microsoft is expected to let users purchase data plans right through the Microsoft Store later in 2018. The ability to buy chunks of data like one or four gigabytes at a time, versus subscribing to a monthly data plan, will change how people view and consume data on mobile PCs. You'd just buy what you need, when you need it, with no immediate expiration.

Why Microsoft could very well revive the Courier in 2018

Finally, Microsoft's rumored Andromeda device is expected to blur the worlds of smartphones, PCs, and tablets. The new form factor allegedly can act as a phone, but it is not designed around that modality. Instead, it's a foldable, journal-like PC reminiscent of the original Microsoft Courier concept from 2010 but made for a 4G LTE world (and soon 5G).

A mobile world is here

Surface Logo

Surface Logo (Image credit: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

None of this implies that smartphones are going to become unnecessary. But the need to have a more powerful computing option that is also easily mobile, flexible, and gets good battery life is a problem every major tech company is addressing.

Apple has the iPad Pro, which it increasingly positions as a mobile PC and laptop. Google has Chromebooks, as its attempt at a mobile PC, in addition to its Android phones. Microsoft has a three-pronged approach, as outlined here.

None of these strategies (or companies) need to be the winner, but Microsoft certainly seems to have the most comprehensive approach that is slowly coming online. Of course, whether consumers and first-line workers (retail stores, hospitals or manufacturing plant employees) respond to this push remains to be seen, but amidst the chaos of the Windows phone debacle, there is a significant mobile strategy brewing at Microsoft.

For 2018, it should be interesting to see very portable devices that run full Windows 10 hit the consumer market. With three major categories and a concerted push from its hardware partners Microsoft could be in an exciting position. The big question is, as always: Can the company execute properly on a concept that many people currently doubt?

Further reading

Daniel Rubino
Executive Editor

Daniel Rubino is the Executive Editor of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft here since 2007, back when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and arguing with people on the internet.

  • Well, just because Microsoft isn't developing a phone doesn't mean that partners could'nt develop devices with the traditional phone form factor. OS wise everything is there for them to do it. If Andromeda works with Windows on ARM and telephony capabilites I'd guess that a non foldable device would do the same...
  • Sure, that worked out well the last time...
  • The last time a partner developed phones with the same Windows as the other devices? There's the difference now. No separate phone branch of windows. I belive that we would've seen a different development of the Microsoft phones if OneCore had been ready like three years ago. Now the only difference between Windows desktops, laptops, tablets, "foldables" and phones is the physical form factor, not the OS or the application development.
  • Did you read in the text that Andromeda will use Core OS? And on top of that it will have all limitations of Windows for ARM. And unless apps are recompiled (and truth to be told it isn't likely to happen for AutoCAD anytime soon) it will be too powerless for applications for which people actually buy Windows, and they might not be able to run at all. With current retrenchment it will be almost useless at its basic size. It may be good in Continuum thugh one still has to see how well Office works on it. Not to say that it is useless but far from some category killer and far from something that OEMs will jump like crazy. It is more likely that it will be Surface like - they'll wait for Microsoft to actually prove the market and then jump the ship.
  • I sense a failed Kickstarter in the making. It would be tough to justify a device that even MS wouldn't design or build. MS is trying to put some distance between their new device & the W10M debacle, I have to think they would be more than a little hesitant to be associated with yet another iteration of Windows phone, regardless of operating system. I would temper expectations on this unicorn a bit, as it's simply a foldable tablet. They are attempting category creation, the last time they succeeded took about 2-3 years after the 1st generation device was released. Maybe they could accelerate that given what they learned with the surface pro, but who knows. MS is centering the device around pen based input, which the vast majority of people do no regularly use. There is a very large adoption curve to overcome. They'll look at how people use & don't use the device, sink a few more billion in development & hopefully refine the engineering & experience. Nobody gunna make a phone.
  • Agree about phone stuff. Not happening.
    "They are attempting category creation, the last time they succeeded took about 2-3 years after the 1st generation device was released."
    However, Surface Book and Studio were arguably successful on gen 1. Not perfect, but SB2 was not a radical departure, and no one expects Studio 2 be radically overhauled either.
  • Can you please define the success of Studio? How many units were sold, 10? Also, you always talk about how Surface creates new categories. What exactly category did the Studio create, because as far as I know a category is something with wide range of options and followers yet I am eager to find any other OEM doing something even remotely close to Studio, except that one Dell device that noone has ever spotted in the wild. Noone gives a flying crap about Studio, not OEMs OBVIOUSLY, nor users yet this doesn't stop you to call it "success/category creator".. WTH?!?
  • "Dell device that noone has ever spotted in the wild" Uhmmm... why would anyone spot this device out in the wild?  It's a desktop PC.
  • "Can you please define the success of Studio? "
    Not my job to do that. Microsoft has internal data/projections. Whether Studio met those only they know.
    "What exactly category did the Studio create"
    Inking on a 27-inch PC for artists, architects that shifts to a drafting table. Thought that was pretty obvious. If I have to explain that this is going to be a rough comment.
    "I am eager to find any other OEM doing something even remotely close to Studio, except that one Dell device that noone has ever spotted in the wild. "
    Clearly, you hang around the wrong kind of people.
    "Noone gives a flying crap about Studio"
    Was positively reviewed with the exception of the processor/HDD. Even Apple fans gave it praise.
    "yet this doesn't stop you to call it "success/category creator""
    Actually, the fundamentals of the Studio are sound. The issue is the hardware could have been better. But if you need such a PC Studio is one-of-a-kind and works well. The issue is, you're confusing it with something that everyone needs, which clearly is not the case.
  • If you work in publishing or design, you are either using this device or drooling over it...there is nothing like it out in the market..
  • I work with plenty of design companies around the world, and can confirm no single designer (most of them really professionals in their field) knows sh*t about Surface Studio or care even a little bit.
  • Surface Book and Studio are not really new device catagories.  One is a laptop and the other is an "all in one".   Surface was the first a new catagory as a true attempt at a hybrid latop/tablet.  Surface Book and Studio just extended that design language and added features to existing and well estabolished categories.   The engineering is greate on those devices, but it's  not asking people to fundamentally change how they approach and use the device. To me that is a real "category creation"
  • Exactly what I was going to say. The Book's gimmick is that the screen can detach, but other than that it's a laptop with a funky hinge. The Studio is an AIO, well designed, but nothing revolutionary. Both of those products were evolutions of prior designs, AFAIK no one has made a successful folding, dual screen tablet geared toward pen/stylus based input.
  • "The Book's gimmick is that the screen can detach, but other than that it's a laptop with a funky hinge. "
    It's a helluva gimmick. The put an entire PC behind the display and used muscle wire for the latch. All firsts for PC.
    "The Studio is an AIO, well designed, but nothing revolutionary."
    By that metric Surface Pro was just a crappy PC with bad battery life and a floppy keyboard. I think you're confusing revolutionary with new category creation. Not every new category is a "revolution" it's EVOLUTION.
  • " It's a helluva gimmick. " Yawn, no it isn't.
  • Yawn, yes it is.  Because you see, opinions vary.  
  • Sure, I guess we just look at the evolution/revolution thing differently, but I get your point. Also, the Book's gimmick is very cool & crazy awesome engineering- but it seems like a one-off product, copycats/imitators/better versions from OEMs have not been forthcoming. Studio is an exceptionally niche product. These products seem a bit lonely in their respective categories. All that aside: With this new device I have a few different viewpoints, some of which are conflicting. I was pretty pessimistic about the potential new design, but your column the other week I thought made an outstanding point that hasn't seemed to resonate on the forums here. That the uses for such a device aren't readily apparent because no one has used a similar device before- form factor & software might produce new ways of interacting or using the technology & its not easy to conceptualize what those uses could be. At least that was the gist of it to me (so the OP's comment about putting windows on phones yet again just gets the eyes a-rolling). Can MS pull off some amazing feat of innovation? In the mobile space... Ehhh... Maaaybe...? They have billions to burn if they so choose, & honestly nothing to really lose (their reputation in mobile lol), but my expectations remain sufficiently tempered.
  • This approach is thoroughly insane - it was bad enough for Jobs to foist the tablet at us between the laptop/desktop and a phone. Now we'll have a folding device that IS a phone, but not call it a phone, and try to treat it as a tablet wannabe? So now we can have FOUR devices instead of THREE (or TWO). Just call it what it is - a phone competitor to the Galaxy Note 8, and go with it. It really could be the perfect two device solution - phablet and laptop/desktop. Just because MS screwed up the Nokia deal (and lost its shirt in the phone market) doesn't mean it shouldn't be honest and try again.
  • A more transportable tablet? A tablet that'll double as a smartphone for those with little app-need? A tablet that could serve as a smartphone AND a pc with an external display? I see those three use-cases for consumers. As for enterprise, you can add a variety of specific functionalities; as an architect I could use this for lots of things in the field, where a smartphone would be too small, a Surface Pro too big and a tablet just an extra piece of hardware to lug around...
  • You guys still have major problems understanding the technical underpinnings of the OS.
    WCOS is full Windows 10 minus all the "bloat" and legacy support from older Win32 systems, which have no place in the truly mobile world. (We do expect Win32 app support via streaming and eventually local virtualization, plus Centennial apps, however)
    This is completely contradictory. If centennial apps are supported, then the "bloat" and legacy support MUST still be there! It's one or the other. If an app doesn't require Win32, then there is NO point using centennial! Only if an app does depend on Win32, is centennial required to distribute it through the store.
  • Why are you here?
  • To keep tabs on the slow, inexorable death of Windows. (Not that slow, actually.)
  • Sounds like your life needs less pathetic in it.
  • Yes,  it does...So,  Please leave Rodeny,  thank!
  • Bub78 it kind of did with Nokia but then the devices just stopped and the os was dropped.
  • I guess MSFT has this categorization all wrong. I don't think Windows 10 on phones are dead but Windows Core OS that caters Foldable and whole new form factors to come would be just an another upgraded venture at mobile in a constantly evolving world of technology. I hope this one stays.
  • It's it possible to see this foldable device at the end of 2018 or beginning of 2019?
  • We are hearing 2018.
  • Dan I sure hope that the Windows 10 Andromeda 2 screen foldable device does indeed come out especialy because it will be the only Microsoft device with a built in 4G cell phone.  I hope Verizon will carrt the Andrmeda device or at least let Microsoft sell it and Verizon  Activate it like They did with The Verizon version of HP Elite X3 Smart phone.  I am going to buy an 8 inch Windows 10 mini Tablet and use it around the house in the yard and porch through my Wifi. I wish this 8 inch Windows 10 tablet had a built in Cell phone. I am not the only Person who wants a 7 ot 8 inch single screen Windows 10 Mini Tablet with a built in Celll phone. Such a device has a bigger screen and with a blue tooth headset and small shoulder bag it wont be a hassle to send and recieve voice calls or carry around.    
  • We'll just have to wait, and see.... A new season is coming, and times are changing... Nobody stays on top forever, and those on the bottom tend to rise... Look at the NFL.......................
    Look at the auto industry.
  • Are you suggesting a Surface Scribe Developer’s Edition, spring 2018?
  • 😏😏😏
  • I'm suggesting that MS make at least 3-4 different Andromeda form factors in the next 2-3 years.
    Andromeda for Artist
    Andromeda for Productivity
    Andromeda for the Technician
    Andromeda for the Photographer
    Andromeda for Industry
    Andromeda for Education
  • JESUS NO TEK COP.  Don't start on that stoopid name thing again!  Just when it has died down you send rodney on another 5 week tyrade about the stupid scribe name again!
  • I hope so too. Based on the past efforts and developments, MSFT should have learnt something.
  • You would hope!
  • Andromeda has great potentials but it must have adequate phone features.  Otherwise, it would confine itself to a small niche market.  The Samsung Galaxy X would be the future folding mobile device to beat.  
  • We don’t know what the Galaxy X is, though consistent rumours suggest it’s basically a very tall phone that folds in half.
  • and unfortunately will run Android 😉
  • While the final folding design for the Galaxy X is not quite clear at this point, but it would be a fully featured foldable phone.  Since MS deliberately avoids calling Andromeda a smartphone, that makes you wonder whether Andromeda can actually be used as a phone with enough phone features.  If not, Andromeda would be a hard sell for me.  Galaxy X would be my backup choice.  I certainly don't want to carry two devices in my pockets.
  • I don't need another phone. My watch is my phone now.
  • As opposed to the not so tall tablet that will fold in half.   
  • Of all features, the phone part of smartphone is the function I use the least. Having a cell number is needed for some apps like Whatsapp, Uber, etc. It should be easy. There is a reason they kept W10M around, just to have the telephony stack to experiment with.
  • At least Microsoft's timing is good.  Hopefully, they are focused, committed, and patient enough to follow through.  The mobile device market has been commoditized so the window (pun intended) is open for something new and exciting.  
  • I think you hit the nail on the head, the key is focus, commitment, and followthrough.  A folding tablet (Andromeda) with LTE and GPS would be a great move on MS part.  But they need to assure their base - their fanbase, and particularly their developer base - that they are fully committed to this product.  There is nothing more dubious to a developer than a lack of commitment.  After putting your blood, sweat, and tears into an app it becomes your baby, and frankly you want some assurance that the device your baby runs on is going to be around for a while.  
  • Not possible. Anyone can say committed today, but no company will/can say we are committed regardless of what happens. $hareholders are who they report to.
  • "I think you hit the nail on the head, the key is focus, commitment, and followthrough. "
    They do need to earn that, but you also can't earn that if you don't actually release something.
  • Hmm, there is a weird dynamic developing around the Microsoft victim-base (the response of previous fans is now more like a victim response, I'm not being sarky here, this is what I have observed and am experiencing). We expect MS to bail on us, to lie to us, to fail to support us from the start and to ignore our feedback. MS themselves have assured us that future mobile devices will be for enterprise and that consumers should expect the cold shoulder. And yet, in the sure and certain knowledge that they will be treated like dirt, MS victims are keen to take on such devices so long as they are flexible enough that we can bend them to our needs despite MS and the pervasive evil of Ol' Nads. This is very interesting. This is why Windows on PC has worked so well, it is an OS that does not require MS to keep it supported to work well. The OS is not locked down so tight that anything beyond an app in a sand box is kept away from users. From delving into the registry, to custom drivers, to wiping the system completely and installing any OS desired, to writing and running pure machine code, the PC is ultimately under the full control of the end user whatever Ol' Nads decides to do. Windows Phones, of course, are locked down hard and are reliant on MS support to remain useful. If MS can make this device something that can be as flexible and open as a PC and not as tied down and dependent as the old smart phone paradigm then the Microsoft victim-base will be able to use it in many creative ways that MS can't even imagine, and it will flourish despite them as we cam support it ourselves. That will mark the not-Phones out as a new type of device that will be able to change the way we use technology. If not, if it is to follow the tied down old style smart phone paradigm, then it'll just be the same old story. I believe this will be a true PC in my pocket and not just another smart phone app platform. I think this is the way to avoid the need for trust in Microsoft. I trust myself. I trust the community. If MS can show they trust me and the community and give us the tools to do with the not-Phones as we will then I may even start to trust MS in return. If they want to remain in control, if they fail to show trust and lock users out and keep us reliant on the whim of Ol' Nads, we all know where this will end. Bitterly. This is the chance to turn the corner and I hope that MS will take it. Despite the massive drag factor that is Ol' Nads.
  • This is why I really hope PWA is successfull.  If Microsoft pulls the plug, the developer has not lost all of their work.
  • PWA is only going to cover the simplest of apps, stuff that a website could do. It will be quite a while before they replace native apps.
  • Something is better than nothing. Not all (popular) apps need to be native. And it has already been explained that PWA doesn't get rid of the need of native apps. Like you said some apps need more features or power so they'll remain native built, but PWA should be become more advanced as it grows.
  • Why not move to a supported system?   makes life much easier and better.  Instead of HOPING for PWA and half assed support again.
  • It's predicted according to Gartner that 50% of native Mobile apps will be replaced by PWA. Lets be honest no company wants to pay dedicated native developers, they'll rather use the web. PWA is exactly that.  I don't think you realise but a vast majority of Mobile apps are simple apps, not complex apps. It'll impact native IOS and Android development than Windows 10 development. 
  • Hopefully they update edge on mobile because of the pdf bug right now. Hopefully that will be the edge including pwa support. Like to see what happens...
  • The PDF bug in Edge for Windows Mobile was the last issue I encountered on my 950XL that made me purchase an Android phone this Tuesday.  I used my DualSim 950XL phone for work in two countries.  I receive pdf documents several times a day. I could no longer tolerate this bug. My Android cel phone purchase was done in haste out of necessity, so I didn't purchase the phone that I wanted, but rather the one I could get quickly here in Mexico. That said, the inexpensive Huawei Mate 10 Lite that I purchased is a very good piece of stock.... 2160x1080 5.9" screen, 4GB of Ram, 64GB of Storage, Android 7 (yeah... I hope Oreo support is coming soon). It even allowed me to clone WhatsApp, so that I have seperate WhatsApp instances available for my US number and my MX numbers. And of course, I installed MS Outlook and configured all of my Email accounts. in fact I'm an Office365 subscriber, so the Android phone got all of the participating apps. Basically, my 950XL is now only used to accept phone calls and text on my US number... So I will find a cheap phone and move the sim and eliminate this 950XL. Why, becuase everything else has moved to Android.... because basically, Microsoft can't commit to fix the PDF bug in my Windows Cel phone... My wife is having the same issues and is looking to do an Android phone as well.  I've found the Mate 10 Lite Unlocked with Dual Sim variants for the same price that I purchased the Single Sim variant... so I will probably purchase one of those for me.... and then pass my Single Sim version over to my Wife... (it's helpful to have a similar device as my wife for 'in house' tech support... lol) Crazy... but there is absolutely no Windows Mobile alternative available and I won't drag a large tablet, laptop or desktop around with me to handle tasks that the rest of the world accomplishes with their iPhone and Android Mobil Phones.... I don't care how 'Always Connected' Windows is in Tablet Form, Desktop Form or Laptop Form.... I'm not sliding one of those in my pocket..... And I don't think I'm willing to spend the estimated $1200usd that this Adromeda device might carry in order to slide 'Something Windows' into my pants pocket... Congradulations Microsoft... in the last 3 months my wife and I have kicked to the curb Two Asus 2 in 1 Tablets and now 1 950XL phone (another 950XL will be retired shortly).... None of these devices were more than 16 months old..... And Android is replacing all of them... That said... I prefered WIndows 10 Mobile... but the bugs and broken stuff are too much to endure..... and the lack of commitment to fix them.... I don't need to repeat myself...
  • I think this is going to become more and more common.  People think of Android as mobile, not MS.  Also, why wouldn't you stick with  the same ecosystem?  Want something always connected, like a Chromebook....get a Chromebook.  For most office workers - Google has a suite of productivity tools - that will do.   I am waiting for Google to announce Android on Intel....the opposite of MS Mobile is life now.  And the Phone is the common tool (I was always hoping Continuum would get some traction.....but nope...But if Apple released it - it would have flown)