Microsoft's 'Surface phone' should include AR glasses, a pen and exclusive apps

Pre-2007 Microsoft was content targeting businesses with cumbersome, stylus-dependent smartphones sporting physical keyboards. Those precursors to modern smartphones could play music, surf the web, take pictures and run apps.

Apple didn't invent the "MP3 player-internet device-phone" combination former Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced in 2007.

The iPhone was simply a refinement of a preexisting model. The removal of the keyboard, the introduction of the App Store and most importantly targeting consumers put Apple and the iPhone at the forefront of a mobile revolution. Microsoft has been scrambling for mobile relevance ever since. With Apple's move into AR history may repeat itself.

Here we go again

In 2015 Microsoft introduced HoloLens and Windows Holographic (now called Windows Mixed Reality). Microsoft's untethered wearable Windows 10 computer projects holograms onto the real world in a wearer's field of view. It also provides spatial sound. With gaze, gesture and speech interaction HoloLens is the most advanced AR solution in the industry.

Windows Mixed Reality APIs are also part of Windows 10, which makes it a growing AR platform 500 million devices strong.

As it did with smartphones, Microsoft has focused its AR efforts on the enterprise and specific industries. Consumers have not been part of the equation.

Now, as in 2007, Apple has introduced a consumer-focused AR solution with ARKit for iOS 11. With hundreds of millions of iPhones and iPads as its medium, Apple's AR solution may be adopted, popularized and mainstreamed among consumers faster than the iPhone was. Microsoft may find itself scrambling for relevance yet again.

Microsoft can't sit idly by while its HoloLens and Windows Mixed Reality AR investments are buried beneath the coming deluge of media coverage, apps and business uses of Apple's AR move. Microsoft needs to go all-in with both a mobile and AR solution that addresses the consumer space.

It will be a gamble, but doing nothing is certain defeat. Microsoft should launch a Surface phone with a pen and AR glasses in 2018. There I said it.

Microsoft, all in is the only option

Microsoft's careful advance into AR, building partnerships, developer support and practical applications in various industries was a smart move. Having NASA, the US military, Legendary Entertainment, the education sector, car dealerships, health care and more as HoloLens and AR partners is great for Microsoft and its platform. It's just not enough.

The mainstreaming of personal computing has shifted the balance of influence. Increasingly consumers, not the enterprise, are dictating what technologies are adopted and ultimately succeed. Microsoft's absence from the AR consumer space makes it irrelevant to consumers and consequently irrelevant to developers. Get it? Even with Microsoft's presence in niche markets, with enough consumer and developer critical mass Apple's AR solution may make HoloLens and Windows Mixed Reality AR as irrelevant as the iPhone made Windows phone.

Microsoft must bring AR to consumers.

Microsoft should continue investing in niche markets but must add an aggressive consumer component. A massive awareness-building television campaign would show consumers and the enterprise what it's doing with AR and HoloLens. Telling its AR story could generate interest, mindshare, and demand for its AR solution. In consumers eyes, Microsoft's more sophisticated and mature solution would make Apple's look elementary by comparison. Microsoft needs to establish that edge, and they can easily afford to set these wheels in motion.

Microsoft could begin this campaign this year before Apple's AR apps hit the market and continue into 2018. This campaign would be the prelude to Microsoft's 2018 AR glasses and ultimate mobile device.

Microsoft's ultimate mobile device augmented with AR

Microsoft must put the weight of the entire company behind Surface phone. As a device that I presume will benefit from a synergy of technologies such as inking, AI, gaming, CShell, Continuum, mixed reality and more, inter-department collaboration is a must.

The strategy and marketing teams are also essential to positioning and marketing this ultramobile Surface. This "ultimate mobile device" must appeal to all market segments: consumers, the enterprise, and gamers. Microsoft must go all in.

If it launches, the Surface phone is expected in 2018. The next version of HoloLens is planned for 2019. I believe the ultramobile Surface should launch with both pen support and AR glasses in 2018 to further differentiate and to bring an AR product to market.

Inking and AR should be Surface phone highlights.

I don't mean a HoloLens headset with all the bells and whistles. I'm suggesting paired down, device-dependent AR glasses, based on HoloLens tech that will provide users with a basic but useful AR experience.

Just as the Surface Pen works synergistically with the Surface, these AR glasses can do the same with the Windows 10 ultramobile Surface PC. I imagine glasses that connect wirelessly (or wired when sitting) to an ultramobile Surface or any Windows 10 PC for that matter. They would be capable of displaying 3D images, alerts, and apps in the user's field of view and would have limited sensors for detecting motion and one's surroundings.

Microsoft can make the apps for that

As the world's leading software developer Microsoft can support its ecosystem by creating a broad suite of exclusive Universal Windows Platform (UWP) and AR-specific productivity, utility, gaming and entertainment apps. These high-quality apps can bear the Surface branding, like the Lumia apps of the past, and would be software equivalents of the esteemed Surface hardware.

Microsoft should begin developing, releasing and marketing these apps now. This level of commitment as a developer of exclusive apps for its own platform would convey to developers and consumers that Microsoft is serious about Windows, mobile and AR.

If the AR apps combined with the ultramobile Surface and AR "Surface" glasses is a compelling experience, consumers may be drawn to Windows, just as gamers are drawn to consoles because of exclusive games.

Microsoft's productivity legacy, Xbox and Windows gaming platforms, and Microsoft Garage are resources that can be drawn on to develop a broad range of engaging UWP and AR-specific apps. Real-time translation, facial-recognition, weather, and mapping are just some AR apps Microsoft could launch as seen here:

Microsoft's full commitment to creating a host of AR games, utility, and entertainment apps would make its AR solution practical, appealing and inspiring to developers.

Get it to market then iterate

AR glasses connected to an ultramobile Surface will be wrought with engineering challenges. Power consumption, modes of interaction, display quality, cost and more are valid considerations.

Still two years ago Microsoft introduced HoloLens, the first fully untethered wearable holographic computer. The company has since learned more about the technology and its applications and have skipped version two to jump to an even more advanced version three.

Microsoft has likely gleaned enough knowledge from HoloLens to enable it to build a far less sophisticated set of AR glasses that require connection to a separate device but can provide useful and engaging AR experiences. I understand Microsoft likely wants to wait until it can blow everyone's minds with a full consumer version of HoloLens, but the market won't give Microsoft that chance. Apple is on the move.

This ARKit-created virtual measuring tape for iPhone is the type of app that would be more practical viewed hands-free via AR glasses:

Apple's 16 million developers and hundreds of millions of iOS users are poised to mainstream AR in Apple's image with little to no resistance from Redmond. This can't be what Microsoft want's after its pioneering AR investments.

Just do it

Microsoft, give us a Continuum-enabled ultimate mobile device with CShell that has the support of the entire company, showcases a synergy of technologies and appeals to consumers, gamers, and the enterprise. Include a pen and AR glasses to highlight Windows 10 innovations in inking and AR.

Support UWP and Windows Mixed Reality with high-quality first-party apps. Most of all, do what Apple did with iPhone and what it's doing with AR: get the ultramobile Surface and AR glasses to market, then iterate.

Must Read

Microsoft must launch a Surface phone - and get it right the first time

How Microsoft can ensure Surface phone success

With Surface phone will Microsoft learn from past marketing mistakes?

Microsoft will release a Surface phone - but it can take a while

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!

206 Comments
  • Thanks for reading folks!!! In order for Microsoft's ultimate mobile device to have a chance at success (it's an uphill battle) Microsoft must put all of its support behind the effort. Combined with an AR move MS can address its battle for AR mindshare and ultimately consumer, industry and developer support. I think an ultramobile Surface AR glasses 👓 and pen ✏ support can be a great differentiating move combined with a device positioned for consumers, enterprise and gamers. Microsoft must make an ultimate effort if it's going to launch an ultimate mobile device. So what are your thoughts? LET'S TALK!!;
  • I sure hope Satya and the rest of Microsoft are reading this. You've given them the marching orders they need to succeed. They have so much talent and resources at their disposal. They need to do this work in a much more nimble fashion.
  • The question is why does Microsoft need to read this? Why can Apple, Google, Samsung, and the like, figure it out by themselves? Why can one Jason Ward see what thousands of MS employees can't? Why can't MS see what you can?..... In my opinion, that's a big enough question to warrant it's own article.🤦🤦🤦
    .............................
    When you really dig down deep, and look for root cause, I think the problem with MS is that they are too afraid of failure. Overly cautious to a fault. Probably justifiable, to an extent, because of recent failures, but ultimately a bad attitude... MS can't afford to stop taking calculated risk, but they have. The consumer market is a huge PR risk, and MS has grown fearful of the consumer... Well, if MS is to succeed in the new world their corporate nut sack must drop back down out of their asses, releasing their heads in the process.
  • I don't think they are afraid of failure.  They are driven by dollars.  They are more driven my money. I also think they don't know what to do against Google, Apple, Samsung, Facebook.  Those popular consumer areas are gone and tough to break into. Business, Windows is not longer the most used OS - Android has that.  They haver servers, DB, .NET, Bing, Xbox and cloud.  That is where they are strong. Buying LinkedIn - actually smart.  That is the defacto online space to hire people.  Yes, give me your counter thoughts (and go easy on me, I am a fragile flower) So what do they focus on?  The stuff they are strong at?  If you say Microsoft - what do you think the average consumer thinks?  BSOD?  Windows 95 and the Stones?  Zune? MS is not fearful of the consumer.  They don't know what to offer them.  
  • If they were more driven by dollars, they'd be going after the consumer space. Observe Apple's bank account, despite zero meaningful presence in the business world.
  • Yes, if you're driven by dollars you would go where the dollars are,,, unless you're scared you can't succeed, and are afraid to take risk.. Sounds just like MS.
  • Didn't used to be that way. Back before Nadella, they were pretty bold with Windows Phone. I remember standing in line for HOURS for the Windows Phone challenge, and watching android and iPhone fall in various tasks one after the other, unable to match the speed of Windows Phone 7x. Before Nadella, WP was growing year over year. Now it's basically dead.
  • Are you so sure Apple's bank account is not more cheating on taxes and fooling people into thinking they ain't cool? Let's just dismiss the fact that the factory that makes iPhone had to put up suicide nets because so many of their workers were killing themselves. Yeah who cares as long as we get a cool phone, right?
  • Oh give me a break, dude. What's "cool" is what the culture decides is cool through the choices they make. It is indisputable that no single phone has more mindshare than the iPhone. In pure numbers, Android sells more units, but that entails thousands of different devices across dozens, if not hundreds of OEM's. As for Foxconn, they don't just make iPhones, and never did. They make tons of devices, not least of which includes plenty of Windows PC's, Android phones and tablets--we could spend all day listing the numbers of devices they make for a list of companies as long as your arm. Yes, conditions were sometimes too much for some of their workers. Little by little, they've been improving, and even when they were at their worst, they were still better than the $3 a month jobs people often had working in filthy rice paddies, or the sex slavery a lot of those women either barely escaped from or avoided only because they got a factory job--a job which, incidentally, 30 years ago was illegal for them to hold. You view things way to simplistically.
  • vEEP pEEP, If you are going to analyze an issue, you really need to know what your premises mean, what conclusions you can draw from them, and have a finely tuned sense of intuition. You've drawn the conclusion that in the business segment, Windows is no longer the predominant OS.  You've based that conclusion upon the idea that Android is the world's most used OS.   Of course the idea that Android is the most used OS is only true if you take into account smartphones.  While "Bring your own device" has in fact caused enterprise IT departments to incorporate iOS and Android smartphones and tablets, the predominant DESKTOP OS is no doubt still wildly skewed towards Windows in the business segment.  I have every expectation that consumer desktop and laptops are equally skewed towards Windows.   I expect in both business and the consumer desktop market the Windows percentage is likely over eighty percent, and probably about ninety percent. People who have an axe to grind about Microsoft or who tend toward doing facile and faddish analysis talk about Microsoft's irrelevance or perhaps the death of Windows.  Nonsense, useless prattle. Now in the smartphone segment, that's a different story.
  • However, the statistics clearly indicate Microsoft is losing ground on all fronts.  BYOD for the enterprise has made that as big of an issue as anything, but Microsoft has not helped that by spending more time pumping out services and features for iOS and Android first (or, somethings, exclusively) over Windows (whether desktop, tablet or phone).  I have been the biggest Microsoft cheerleader.  I began to lose faith when W10 and W10M came out.  Just as bad, what they did to the Xbox UI.  I have gone from actively, enthusiastically encourage everyone I know to switch to Windows Phones, Xbox, etc., to telling them "stay where you're at, there's nothing worth switching to  here".  For myself, I hate Android, Google and Apple so much, I won't use their garbage no matter what, so I'll switch to a tether-capable feature phone if my Lumia 1020 finally dies.
  • I feel the same way, except that I actually LIKE the Xbox UI :). But that said, I carry an iPhone in addition to a Lumia, because Microsoft has botched Windows 10 Mobile so bad. I'm honestly on the verge of flashing my phone back to 8.1.
  • This is pretty much true.
  • Therefore MS is fearful of the consumer, as I said.
  • That answer is the same one I have given from the moment he was put in charge: Satya Nadella.  He is a shortsight, idiotic fool.  While Steve made some blunders, he had the right idea and drive.  Satya just makes me sick and doesn't know what he's doing.  And I would tell him this to his face in front of the entire Microsoft workforce.
  • With Ballmer, Steve. I saw tangible progress... Now,,, seems like more talk than ever.
  • MS are too reliant on their partners for market place traction when Apple and the like build and market things themselves.
    They need to stop being reactive as a company and start being pro active.
  • Apple, Google, Samsung and the like aren't figuring anything out but marketing. With the right marketing you can sell anything.
  • Are you me, because those are my exact words. You must be a genius!
  • I hope they are thinking bigger than this. The phone should be the accessory to the HoloLens, not the other way around. The phone should be relegated to smartwatch status. Think about how foolish this strategy is otherwise -- even if they get to market first with an AR accessory, are consumers going to abandon Android/iOS phones for a Windows phone? Did consumers abandon Windows for Mac when the iPod was exclusive to the Mac? Not even close. Instead the HoloLens should work with iOS and Android, but relegate them to dumb cellular displays or controls. The HoloLens should be the primary computer that makes the smartphone a companion. Scrape the cellular, gps, and notifications from the phones and display them on the AR glasses. Keep the computational power and file storage in the AR glasses. Use the other platforms as a dumb companion until you can make them as interchangeable as your ISP.
  • Sounds good but a consumer ready HoloLens is at the nearest and highly optimistic 2019, more realistically according to Phil Spencers prediction of the evolution of the tech (though not a statement of MS timeline ) is 5 to 10 yrs out. So, in the meantime, as we move toward consumer HoloLens, MS needs an AR product in the market in the near term. Thus, my presentation here of AR glasses 👓 in 2018, preceded by a huge campaign promoting MS various investments with AR and HoloLens to build awareness, mindshare and demand.
  • Well if you said such to Apple, people would think the message unnecessary because of course Apple would work that way. To ask it of Microsoft? It kinda has a feel of asking for the moon on a stick. Like this is a dream scenario that we can't seriously expect to see. MS, what have you done to your fans when you've got us expecting you to fail? Very dangerous. Feels like your new direction ought to be marketing centred and well on the way to being ready. The tech is there, you can and do get that right, just box it up and sell it hard. If you even looked like you might give it a go we'd be buoyed somewhat.