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Microsoft WILL release a Surface 'phone' — but it could take a while

Though I'm a long-time Windows phone user, my confidence doesn't rest on blind hope or sentiment. It is a pragmatic matter.

It's simply logical

Microsoft needs a pocketable mobile device in the market because many computing tasks are mobile. Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella recently said, "I'm sure we'll make more phones, but they will not look like phones that are there today." The company's cross-platform efforts are noteworthy but don't replace the impact of a first-party device and platform.

Nadella also stated, and I've reiterated, that what he calls an "ultimate mobile device" won't be the typical smartphone. Thus, claims that Microsoft's done with first-party hardware because it's not making traditional smartphones are ill-founded.

Though Microsoft lost the smartphone war, it's in the midst of a multi-year effort to establish the Universal Windows Platform (UWP), which is a multi-pronged effort with ecosystem and device implications. During this transition, the components that I believe will comprise an ultimate mobile device have been under development, and some have been revealed over time. To understand what I believe Microsoft's doing, one must look at its investments as pieces to a puzzle. If Microsoft's vision of a mobile device that can be a PC via Continuum is to succeed, it must be able to perform, to a reasonable degree, the range of tasks of a modern Windows 10 PC.

Microsoft will talk about mobile at Build, just not how you expect

Features like system-wide inking, Win32 as UWP apps (via Project Centennial), Windows on ARM, Continuum, mixed-reality, gaming and more have been steadily introduced as parts of Windows that I believe Microsoft plans will benefit its ultimate mobile device. Consequently, the journey to this device is long, thus Microsoft's assertion that it won't launch until it's ready.

Pieces of the puzzle

Critical thinking about what Microsoft built into Windows 10 and existing Windows 10 devices can help visualize where Surface phone may fit in the Surface family and what Windows 10 features it might showcase.

I expect a Windows-10-on-ARM, pocketable, telephony-enabled ultramobile Surface PC. It'll be positioned alongside the Surface Book, Pro and Laptop as a mobility-focused mini PC. It will use Continuum and Centennial apps in desktop PC mode, and when in hand the UI will conform to touch-friendly mode via CShell. It'll be capable of the range of Windows 10 features, have a strong pen and inking focus and make phone calls.

Some have concluded that the removal of phone APIs from this year's Fall Update suggests a removal of telephony from Microsoft's strategy. That view considers only the immediate timetable. The road to Surface phone is long, but Microsoft seems dedicated to building the ecosystem infrastructure that will optimize it via:

  • UWP.
  • Continuum.
  • Inking.
  • Project Centennial.
  • Mixed Reality.
  • Gaming.
  • Cloud.
  • Cellular and telephony.

A puzzle is sold with the finished image to act as a guide for the placement of the pieces. Similarly, Microsoft's current devices, combined with the known needs of a mobile device, provides a picture that shows how parts of Microsoft's ecosystem may forge an ultimate mobile device. This won't happen near-term. A long-term perspective is needed as Microsoft matures and integrates the pieces.

Let's take a look at the company's progress.

Is early 2018 to soon for Surface phone?

An evolving vision

In January 2015, I wrote the following after considering the type of mobile device Windows 10 and OneCore might enable:

Is a seven-inch Microsoft Surface Mini Phablet on the Horizon? ... Rather than being a phone with a large display like virtually every other device ... dubbed phablet, the Surface Mini will be a tablet with telephony functionality. It will be a tablet first ... with the full functionality of a tablet and ... range of capabilities of a Windows 10 ARM-based tablet, but will also be capable of functioning as phone.A productivity tablet with software enhanced to take full advantage of a digitizer pen, full access to a host [of] multimedia and leisure apps with the additional ability to place and receive phone/Skype calls and Skype/SMS messaging is an easier sale than a seven-inch smartphone. 

My two-year-old analysis saw the company abandoning the traditional smartphone market for a device that was more PC than a phone (I didn't predict a foldable design then), telephony-enabled with an inking focus. Nadella's later assertions that Microsoft would build a device that doesn't have the traditional smartphone form and function, the advent of Windows on ARM, and the broader implementation of inking throughout Windows, as revealed at Build 2017, seem to indicate Microsoft's heading in the very direction I predicted.

UWP, cloud and Surface Mini reborn

In August 2015, I wrote Windows phone is the device that can replace your tablet and become your PC and stressed the single device vision Continuum for phone enables.

Surface phone must be much more than a phone

Additionally, my analysis of Microsoft's October 6, 2015, devices event emphasized the importance of the unifying platform which supplemented that argument:

Though the day was a means to showcase devices it was the Universal Windows Platform that took center stage ... the future of computing is "device-less" and the primary computing device is the cloud … The hub is you.

The UWP provides a common development and user experience platform for all device types. A single device that can become many would fit seamlessly in that environment. Furthermore, Microsoft's cloud-based platform which embraces iOS and Android with a Windows PC as a "hub" as demonstrated at Build, fits this scenario and an earlier analysis. Particularly if this device benefits from Nadella's still-pending promise of the best Microsoft experience being on Windows.

I expanded that analysis in November 2015, when I highlighted Devices Chief Panos Panay's commitment to the canceled Surface Mini, which he still takes notes on using his Surface Pen. I deduced elements of the Mini, such as its Pen-focused aspects, may be reborn in the Surface phone. Given Microsoft's investment in providing unique inking experiences in Windows, my analysis may be correct.

Is Microsoft's rumored Surface Phone a re-imagined Surface Mini

Continuum, collaboration and changing the game

In November 2015, I presented an analysis that Microsoft's mobile offensive is about changing the game. To do that the company committed to a strategy that diverged from traditional smartphone rules. This strategy had precedence in the company's creation of the 2-in-1 category with the Continuum-enabled Surface "tablet that can replace your laptop." The industry has since embraced context-conforming Windows 2-in-1s.

In December of 2015, I presented an analysis that highlighted the fact that Microsoft's success with 2-in-1s helped introduce consumers to the company's philosophy of one device that conforms to a user's context via Continuum. As part of Microsoft's long-term strategy this category-defining product is helping prepare consumers for an ultramobile Surface.

Additionally, since company culture matters, in January 2016 I conducted interviews with three Microsoft employees who stressed that the fear is gone and there's a greater level of collaboration. A category-defining mobile device that will be a PC with telephony and showcases various aspects of Windows 10 would need the collaboration of various teams who has the courage to take chances.  

Ultramobile PC, Centennial and Windows on ARM

In April of 2016, I argued that iterative advancements of smartphone hardware was a dead end. And Microsoft's ultramobile PC strategy was a solution to the declining PC market and evolution of the smartphone as it positions a PC for the mobile, not smartphone space. For the device to be a PC via Continuum, it needs to run PC apps.

In December of 2016, Microsoft announced that it's bringing full Windows 10 to ARM on cellular laptops, tablet sand 2-in-1 PCs. Not only are modernized Centennial "Win32" apps important to the cellular PC but this progress in Microsoft's strategy brought my analysis of an ARM-based telephony-enabled ultramobile PC into view. With a slow expansion into providing mobile data through the Windows Store, Microsoft may be headed toward less dependence on carriers over time.

Microsoft's Project Centennial app bridge makes sense of Win32 apps on phone

Windows 10 S and mixed reality

Microsoft knows it needs a mobile device in the market and that device cannot be a typical phone. Ensuring the ultimate mobile device can "be" a Windows desktop via Continuum is a necessary key differentiator.

Furthermore, Microsoft's an industry leader in mixed reality, and Windows mixed reality APIs are part of every Windows 10 device. Mixed reality may be a big part of the ultimate mobile device.

The Surface phone won't be a phone. It'll be a telephony-enabled ultramobile PC that showcases the range and power of Windows 10 on a pocketable device. As you see, the range of features are broad, complex and still maturing. We'll get there in time. Meanwhile, keep an eye on what Microsoft's doing with its puzzle pieces, and you'll see how it's all coming together.

Also Read:

How Microsoft can ensure Surface phone success

With Surface phone will Microsoft learn from past marketing mistakes

Why Windows 10 S, Project Centennial are critical to Continuum's success

Why Xamarin is the future of mobile for Microsoft

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

413 Comments
  • Thanks for reading folks! The Surface phone has been anticipated for some time. And as we know, alone it will do little to nothing for Microsofts mobile fortunes as I've asserted in articles like: "Is early 2018 to soon for a Surface phone" where I stress the need for ecosystem building efforts. In this piece I stressed the platform and ecosystem building "components" that I believe Microsoft is aligning that will be critical for an ultimate mobile device (ie inking, UWP, Centennial, mixed reality, gaming, ) These are moving parts of the puzzle that when one envisions where a ultimate mobile device might fit in the Surface family, a Windows 10 device meant to showcase Windows 10 features but has a mobility focus, - an ultramobile Surface - it's easier to see what Microsoft may be doing with it's ecosystem in relation to its mobile vision and why the Surface phone is "taking so long". As MS stressed it won't launch until ready. Microsoft needs and has confirmed an ultimate mobile device that doesn't play by the other guy's smartphone rules is coming. Don't expect a flow of details from Microsoft though. Thoughtfully following the moving parts of this picture is your only recourse. Besides a professed commitment to mobile Microsoft, as it did with HoloLens and Surface, is tight-lipped.
  • Oh yeah...😎 For those who didn't read and just jumped into comments. Let's have an intelligent discussion based on the content of the piece. For that to happen, you'll have to go back and read. When you don't read, it shows.🤔 "He who gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame." Agree or disagree - LET'S TALK (intelligently)😉!!!
  • Title was misleading as news when, in fact, it's just more speculation. Plus, it's already been 1.5 years since Microsoft's last phone, which to some of us is already past taking "a while." I didn't make it past the first paragraph.
  • Very misleading article. Also stopped reading after the first paragraph. I think we are all tired of these kinda speculations and beliefs, we need real facts.
  • It's called an EDITORIAL... He doesn't have to present solid facts. It's based on subjections.. This is Jason's point of view, and you can take it, or leave it.... But, you can't expect the man not to voice his point of view.... EDITORIAL!
  • Yeah, I didn't get far enough to see the editorial stamp so thought maybe Ward had some news. He has done news articles in the past.
  • Lol. Well, MS hasn't officially said anything regarding a Surface Phone, and we all know by now to even take leaked Information with a grain of salt........
    .....
    Fact is that there IS more evidence that MS HAS intent to make a mobile device, than there is evidence that MS has no intention of making a mobile device.... I can't wait for someone to argue this with me.😂😂😂 I'm ready
  • Will take a lot from MS to create back real fans...not just a piece of hardware.   Cloud first, "mobilefirst....customer last
  • On an Android phone I see
  • No you're right. Microsoft is going to do ultra-mobile one way or the other. The valid frustrations about not having a top-of-the-line mobile experience should not blind us to the signs.
  • I mean, you're not wrong. For how long Windows Mobile has been going on - literally decades - its certainly not going to just stop now.
  • Right.
  • What apps will even be left after all of this? 90% or so are still 8.1 based apps. Doubt those will even work on a Surface phone.
  • Thanks rodney. :-)
  • NP... "Grain of Salt" these guys need to remember, rather than getting thier garter wedged to tight..
  • Just the Surface Mini and Pen combo and also importance of UWP makes it obvious. There will be a "phone" in the future, Jason.
  • Sorry Jason, with all due respect this article just seems like a whole lot of 'as i wrote', 'as i already said' , 'I I I...', it feels more like you're just pumping up your own tyres and recycling old articles that we've all read before, and putting information together that others have already put together. Nobody cares who said it first bla bla bla, we all just have to be patient and get on with our lives and if they're going to make something, it will come. If you need to get an iPhone or android in the meantime, go for it, but the current windows phones work fine. Life goes on. It's just a phone ...
  • In this case it's a "Warditorial".  :) A certified one at that!
  • Indeed! :-)
  • Fortunately, Microsoft has all the time in the world... to launch another failing product.
  • Lol. I'm a fan, but considering all we've been through, I'll let you have that one..... After all, considering MS track record with marketing, my greatest fear is that they will make a stupendously terrific Surface Phone, and launch all stock into outer space, so that nobody can get their hands on one... They would hate to actually sell one. That would make them sick to their stomachs.😂😂😂
  • Did you get your Surface 3?
  • It should be on It's way... There was a $160 replacement fee, which is ridiculous for a device that old.. But, it's tied into my monthly payments to att, and those aren't gonna stop, so I had no choice. We're going to catch the fool who stole it, and he's gonna pay...
  • Sorry dude. Admins, your upvote button is too close to the report button. 😜
  • It's rehashed drivel from a troll author begging for clicks. It brings nothing new or useful to the table.
  • WRONG. Editorials are commentary on FACTS. There are no facts here, only speculation. This article is clickbait on a slow news day.
  • How about not giving a f***. The best fact. Do it, you'll feel better. The advice is not just for you.
  • This is not an news article. This is analysis, speculations, possibilities based on subjective things... I guess you don't need newspapers.
  • I agree. It was nothing more thant the author reminiscing  about  previous speculations and giving self congratulatory evidence based on more speculation. I am tired of not have a firm release date on a decent Windows phone. We haven't had a good WP since the 1520 and if there isn't something released this year I"m switching to Android. The 950 was a lackluster phone 2 years ago when it first came out and it's only gotten worse since then. The few apps that it does have seem to be no longer even getting updates from their developers. RIP WP.
  • "It was nothing more thant the author reminiscing  about  previous speculations and giving self congratulatory evidence based on more speculation."  This has been a recurring theme with Jason's editorials over the last few months.  I'm seriously thinking that real news is so thin, that word counts can only be reached by constantly regurgitating old material.  This editorial seems particularly laden with "I' and "My" ... and while I appreciate Jason's views and insights, a "subtle" reminder of those when there's new material to be presented would be sufficient.  I enjoy his writing style in general, and the guy has heart ... surely Windows Central can point his expertise at something other than Windows Phone, at least until there's something new to share?
  • I actually have to agree on more subtlety needed with reminders of his previous assertions. It gets a bit old hat when reading.
  • Hi ProfessMudgitd, Hopefully you read my piece yesterday on Microsoft's AI Driven camera tech, my recent piece about Windows 10 S and Surface laptop taking on Apple and Google, my other recent piece on Windows S and Continuum which includes a Q and A with Microsoft's Stefan Wick. I appreciate your desire for my "expertise" to be pointed in other directions and a review of my work: www.windowscentral.com/author/jason-ward shows that it is applied elsewhere.
    Sadly though just as much effort, and passion goes into those pieces, somehow, the pieces about phone seem to stand out in some readers minds as "all that I write about." That simply is not true.
    Furthermore this piece is a piece reflecting why I believe MS will launch a Surface Phone. That's one of the reasons I did a "history walk" going back to 2015 up to the present highlighting various points that support my perspective. That was also purposefully done because some readers treat a piece like a microcosm and despite being 'regulars' often don't connect previous content. Then there are a percentage of readers based on data who aren't regulars who hit the site.
    These are some of reasons why I was sure to include points from previous peices in one space that helped to tell "Why I believe Microsoft would launch a Surface phone"
  • Hi Jason.  Firstly, my apologies ... I was probably a bit out of line with my last comment.   Yes, I have read all your previous pieces.  In fact, I read EVERY piece that's released on Windows Central, with the exception of those with game-achievement-orientated titles ("How to beat the first boss (P.A.X. robot) in The Surge", sorry Jez!).   Like many others, I think my frustration is evolving.  It started off being about the decline of Windows Phone, then the lack of any new information, and now the re-hashing of plot lines we've heard many times.   That said, I totally understand that there may be new readers who haven't been following the downward spiral of Windows Phone for years, and an opinion piece like this that links to a plethora of previous pieces provides those readers with a rich base from which to learn, and form their own opinions.   What I probably should have done was exercise my right as a reader, and simply decided "I'm not going to read any more of Jason's windows phone pieces, until I hear news from my other sources ... and then I'll pick up the threads, and see how the predictions have panned out".   So, again, my apologies.  I hadn't thought through the "new reader" aspect.  Your work is well appreciated.  Keep on doing the "write" thing!
  • No problem. All is well. I could probably have connected older content with less I and My statements. Perhaps, "we've published" 🤔hmmm
  • You're even on Android?
  • So will we see less of I Me Myself?
  • My issue is that I'm tired of waiting - no firm dates, no hardware, nothing. I have a Surface Pro 3. I don't need a 5, or a Book, or a laptop. I have a 950XL, so I want something in the ultramobile/phone category. MS had the right idea with the Mini. Why not build from that? Release SOMETHING, for pete's sake!!
  • Jason, you are asking for far too much critical thinking abilities from the readers here. This bunch is not a contemplative, forward thinking data driven audience with an innate ability to discern fact from speculation. Some try to think outside of the box but right up against it's walls.
  • Click bait.
    The Jason Ward editorial's are like some nutty professor presenting his thesis on the evolution of stone age man, constant theoretical ramblings like a stuffy university lecturers presentation, all convoluted and boring and definitely not representative of what it really is....a bunch of us deluded fan boys who just want a new WP venting online !
    Just tell it like it is Jason and forget trying to impress with a 1000 page thesis, this is just a forum ffs.
  • n m Thanks for your continued presence despite the criticism😉
  • Nope, the 950 has gotten way better. I have 2 950xl as daily driver and backup. I'm talking about stability, os features and battery life.
  • You should have been off the 1520 long ago, The 950XL isnt lackluster.  I loved my 1520, but I got $100 for it on ebay, and used it towards the 950.  Its similar to the people still using Windows 7. They are hurting Microsoft, and hurting us all, by not consolidating on one platform.  While your refusal to upgrade on time prolly didnt hurt Microsoft much, every little bit hurts.
  • "Its similar to the people still using Windows 7. They are hurting Microsoft, and hurting us all, by not consolidating on one platform. " What?   Boo Hoo for Microsoft.  It may surprise you to learn that the vast majority of people using Windows don't concern themselves with the well-being of Microsoft.  Or you either.  Or "us all".  They just want to get on with whatever they are trying to get done on their computer.   We are not here to "help Microsoft".  In fact, Microsoft should be helping US.  You know, the customers. On top of that, there is a reason that Windows 10 is at 26% share, while Other Windows versions are at a combined 64% share. 
  • I'm trying to figure out what's so misleading.  "Microsoft WILL release a Surface 'phone' — but it could take a while".  His ascertain is that Microsoft will release a Surface "phone" but it won't be anytime soon; Well, not until all the pieces come together (could be one year or 10 years - who knows).  And by phone he means a PC in your pocket with phone capabilities.  Was there some magic phraseology that was suppose to be deciphered?  If there was, it's way beyond my education level.  You do realize this is an op-ed?  It's based on someone's opinion on what they believe the future holds.
    Personally I think it's a waste of time to create the type of device that's being described but many of us accuse Microsoft of not being forward thinking and generally reacting late.  If this concept is forward thinking then I guess we'll see where it takes them if and when it happens.
  • Nicely said
  • Dude, all MS needs to do is make a phone with a camera that can take a picture of the ladies, but show them butt a$$ naked in the picture. They can call it "augmented nudity"⛽
    .......
    End of story. That device would sell,, well let's see, there's 6.5 billion people on this earth, and about 3 billion are men.... Yes, MS would sell 3 billion "Windows Phones"....
    In a months time GoogApple will close their doors. 😎😂😎😂
  • You may not know this, but Sony did create a camera that could do that years ago.  They had a camera that could take infrared pics and see through people's clothing.  Unfortunately they didn't sell Billions.  :)
  • Haha 😆
  • Same with me, plus I get sick of so much pictures of this Nutella guy. 😂
  • Sorry lippidp, but as a member of the WC team I don't have final say on the titles of my pieces. When I write a piece, I assign a title, but the duty editor for the day, gives things a second eye, and tweaks titles at his discretion, which is his right and position to do.
  • No sweat. You're a great writer, btw!
  • Thanks👍🏿
  • Actually, Jason,,, it feels like you're all we have left of "Classic Windows Central".... Well, Dan, and Zack.. But, Dan's problem is that he's too open minded, and not biased enough.. Lol
  • Hey Rodney, thanks for the support, but trust me..I'm a tech-head and if I could afford it, I have just about every phone from every platform. 😎 I prefer Windows phone but I could use any device (with varying degrees of satisfaction of course). Honestly speaking there are some things each OS does better than the other, and some advantages each company, Apple, Google and Microsoft, has over the other. I write about Microsoft but I see the value of other platforms as well.😉
  • LOL, at first glance, I thought your thumbs up was the 💩 sign.
  • I could tell it's this columnist by the title. Lol.&nbs