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Microsoft's Surface phone should be much more than just a 'phone'

At least that's what the critics say about the 16 million legacy apps that will accompany full Windows 10 on a potential ARM-based Surface "phone". Though the prospect of such a device excites techies, those critics' concerns are not without merit.

Their condemnations conjure unappealing images of a user attempting to run full Photoshop on a five-inch display, for instance. Moreover, they ask legitimate questions such as, "How many consumers are asking for desktop apps on their touch-friendly smartphones?" Mobile apps are ideal for the traditional smartphone form factor, and smartphone users are both familiar and comfortable with them after all. Other than techies like myself and some of you reading this, there honestly are not many folks looking to put full desktop apps on a smartphone.

So if it's obvious that there is no huge demand for Win32 apps on phones, why does it seem like Microsoft is so focused on making it happen? Well … it's not.

A matter of perspective and positioning

Perception matters. In relation to its phone-related mobile strategy, Microsoft has to work very hard to reshape how it is perceived if it will succeed.

If my ongoing analysis is correct, Microsoft's Surface phone will not be a phone at all, but it will be an ultramobile PC with telephony. If accurate, the Who-wants-Win32-apps-on-a-phone question from critics does not apply here. It is inherently irrelevant. Why? The device that will be running these Win32 apps will not be a phone. It will be a Windows 10 PC and, and as we know, Win32 apps have a place on PCs.

Smartphones are dead: Evolve or die, Microsoft's ultramobile PC strategy

If that's the case, then why are we having this conversation within the context of smartphones, and a Surface phone to be precise? Simple. Just as the Surface brought the tablet into the laptop conversation, this category-defining ultramobile Surface PC will also cross boundaries.

We have been hardened to think "phone" when it comes to pocketable devices.

This is where the problem of perception rears its head in relation to the hopes of the Windows phone fan. Since 2010, we have grown accustomed to the "wait until next year" placing of our faith in what Microsoft's phone strategy would finally yield. From Windows Phone 7 to the improvements of Windows Phone 7.5, to Windows Phone 8 and the revisions of Windows Phone 8.1, to the not-ready-for-prime-time Windows 10 Mobile when it debuted, fans hopes in Redmond's "phone strategy," seven years later are unfulfilled.

Coupled with the impossible-to-ignore success of Apple and Google in the smartphone arena, our minds have been hardened to think "phone" when it comes to a pocketable computing device with telephony. Suggestions that Microsoft will launch a pocketable Windows 10 PC that does what a phone does are met with "Call-it-what-you-want, it's-a-smartphone" assertions.

Redefining and mobilizing the PC

Without engaging in a semantics war,, Microsoft's potential positioning of a telephony-enabled ultramobile Surface PC as the lowest tier in the Surface line (a reimagined Surface Mini perhaps as I first presented in January 2015) is about actual positioning of an actual PC, and not a war of words.

Thus, such a device would not be a phone any more than a Surface Pro from which one can make Skype calls is a phone. It's a PC. And it is from this PC position that I believe Microsoft will be approaching the mobile war.

Full Windows on ARM and the millions of Win32 apps it brings to cellular PCs and this potential ultramobile Surface are not merely about expanding the catalog of apps on a Windows phone. It is about Microsoft expanding the definition and footprint of the PC deeper into the mobile space.

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Microsoft is expanding the definition and footprint of the PC deeper into the mobile space.

Microsoft's ultramobile Surface is the solution to a declining PC market and evolution to a plateauing smartphone market. It is a long play where Microsoft will be placing a highly portable Windows 10 PC among its family of Surface PCs: the Surface, Surface Book and the reimagined desktop, the Surface Studio.

An adaptive shell will ensure a touch-friendly mobile experience on this ultramobile PC. Continuum will allow for a rich desktop experience where a user will be able to pin apps to a taskbar, use multiple Windows and more when connected to a larger display, mouse and keyboard.

And, ideally Project Centennial, (which I've predicted Microsoft will aggressively push this year because of cellular PCs, Windows 10 Cloud and to prepare for an ultramobile Surface), will modernize Win32 apps by converting them to UWP apps. Furthermore, just as any Windows 10 PC runs both Win32 and Store apps, this ultramobile PC will as well and will benefit from Microsoft's efforts to bring UWP apps to the platform through the app bridges and other means. And, yes, it will make phone calls.

Would criticism of an ultramobile PC persist if Microsoft were successful in mobile?

Samsung's next flagship might have a Continuum-like feature, allowing users to dock their phones and have desktop-like experiences. Though there are challenges to Android's desktop experience, such a move is likely seen as a beneficial evolution of Android's success in mobile. With a catalog of mobile apps in the millions and mobile success backing it, there is likely little resistance to Samsung making this move.

The PC, merged with the phone, is being pushed into a new form factor and deeper into the mobile space.

What if Microsoft had a strong UWP app catalog comparable to that of Apple's and Google's app stores, and it was equally successful in mobile? If that were the case, I doubt its choice to add 16 million legacy apps to that resource, via full Windows on an ultramobile PC positioned to redefine and expand the footprint of the PC further into mobile, would be met with, "No one wants Win32 apps on a phone." This is true particularly because adaptive shells assure users of a smooth mobile experience, and Continuum's continued evolution will provide an experience comparable to a desktop experience.

It would likely be perceived by many as the natural evolution and converging of personal computing within the Windows ecosystem. Its position in mobile would be retained and merged with a PC strategy that would be pushing the PC into a new form factor and deeper into the mobile space.

Pushing the PC into smartphone territory

In the absence of being preceded with a successful position in mobile, Microsoft is attempting to do just this. With full Windows 10 on an ultramobile Surface, Redmond will be adding its vast Win32 app library to just about 600,000 Store apps. Rival platforms have stores that exceed two million apps.

A PC, not a phone, is being positioned to affect Microsoft's mobile fortunes.

Microsoft's strategy is also a move being made in the wake of almost weekly announcements of apps leaving Windows and a shrinking smartphone market presence.

Though a critical eye is certainly warranted, this challenging position coupled with our expectations that a phone, not a PC, would be positioned to affect Microsoft's mobile fortunes may make some overly critical of this potential ultramobile PC strategy.

A PC perspective may hold promise for Microsoft partners

I don't believe this ultramobile Surface will immediately drive a mass of iPhone and Android phone users to Microsoft's mobile vision, as some fans may hope. Nor do I believe that it will be an absolute flop, as many critics claim. As a new type of PC with telephony capabilities, I believe that over time certain markets will slowly begin to embrace it. The enterprise will likely be first.

Microsoft's partners are more inclined to embrace the Surface PC vision than the phone vision.

Third-party manufacturers that are more inclined to embrace Microsoft's Surface PC vision than its phone vision, as evidenced by an industry explosion of 2-in-1s, may begin adding ultramobile PCs to their product portfolios.

Though there are challenges, such as necessary peripherals for Continuum, emerging regions (where a smartphone is usually a consumer's only computing device) may also be a market for an ultramobile PC.

Moreover, users in developed regions looking for a new PC may, in time, see an ultramobile PC that can be a full, highly portable PC and a phone as an option. Particularly, if Microsoft's app ecosystem efforts begin to meet with success (possibly driven in part by cellular PCs beginning later this year) and the Home Hub vision begins to take root.

Continuum's Proximity Connect on an ultramobile Surface in a Home Hub setting, which immediately connects a device, whether it's in a pocket, bag or hand, to a docking station at home (or work) is an appealing feature.

With the right perception comes the right questions

Will Microsoft's ultramobile PC strategy work? I don't know, but a plan at least provides hope. Whatever the outcome, our perception needs to shift from a smartphone-centric point of view to a PC-centric one. We need to look at Microsoft's strategy from its strategic position rather than from the position that our past experiences and the "smartphone war" have trained us to see.

Can Microsoft further redefine the PC and push it into the smartphone space?

Microsoft's mobile war has the company approaching mobile computing and telephony from an entirely new angle.

When we consider what Microsoft is actually doing we realize that the question isn't, "Who wants Win32 apps on a phone?" The better question is, "Can Microsoft further redefine the PC, push it deeper into the mobile space and successfully begin to overlap (even in part) the smartphone market?"

Following the story

What Android and iPhone need to know about Windows phone

Windows phone isn't dead

Smartphones are dead

The untold app gap story

Windows Mobile and the enterprise

I'm a Windows phone fan in an iPhone/Android world. Why? Microsoft has it going on!

The Surface Phone

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!

288 Comments
  • Thanks for reading folks! Microsoft's approach to the Mobile war is, in my estimation, from an ultramobile PC vantage point that is meant to further redefine the PC and push it deeper into the mobile space. As such the question of who wants Win32 apps on a phone, is not the question to ask, but "Can Microsoft further redefine the PC, push it deeper into the Mobile space, and begin (at least in part) to overlap the smartphone market?, is a more appropriate question. Of course, Project Centennial, the other app Bridges and other developer reaching efforts will need to yield fruit to get mobile apps to the platform as part of the strategy, because the ultramobile PC will run Mobile apps just as other Windows PCs do. I submit that we need to shift to a PC-centric perspective from a smartphone-centric one, and the usual arguments' that accompany it to better clearly see see what Redmond's strategy may be, it's course and the potential outcome. Whether it is destined to succeed or fail, shifting a perspective is fundamentally necessary to "see" it with a greater sense of depth. Will it strategy work. I don't know but let's take a look and LET'S TALK!
  • The thought of having a docking station at home and in work and taking the phone away on the fly is appealing to me. I run a few small businesses. I'm not in need of supercomputing, mostly email, crm, web and some accounting. Having all that on one device that is mobile is my dream come true. Granted that the developers and digital artists will need high spec'd PC's, I don't.
  • Yeah, desktop docking for home and office and a lapdock for on the go (but better and cheaper than the HP x3 Elite lapdock, that dock costs more than a laptop!)
  • Jason's argument is definitely logical and persuasive, the unmentioned truth though is as you say. Most users require a PC now that can be powered from a very small form factor.
    Add phone and touch features and it becomes a phone.
    If we could dock our phone pc's with the high end ones to seamlessy get a faster pc to work on then I think the evolution of the phone is complete, its just another pc peripheral (either the majority of its processing power, or just a box to control high end power).
  • Hey Scott, I think this is where MS is headed. Redline the PC, smaller, portable, (ultra)mobile so that it serves as a persons personal computer at home and work. A new type if PC. Throw in telephony, now something that may have appeal on simply its PC merits, begins to overlap the smartphone space as well. Sure other ecosystem aspects as I point out in the piece have a role in making this successful, but I think this is the angle MS is coming from. When we also consider where MS is investing in mixed reality, 3D Paint, in king etc, I'm sure some ir all of these experiences would be highlighted to bring a truly unique experience to such an ultrmobile device.
  • The thing about artists and engineers needing high specced computers could lead to more advanced external grahics or even external cpus. Then they could really have the same ultramobile device to take with them and get the power in the office when they need it...
  • I cannot speak for anyone else but I would buy one. Being like everyone else is boring. 😎
  • What about practicality though? At the moment, Windows Phone = second-rate mobile experience where you are forced to live with "good-enough" apps and services, IF you're lucky.
  • Carrying an efficient and powerful smartphone / tablet / computer in my pocket is very practical.
  • Lack of powerful and efficient hardware has not been the issue bogging down Windows Phone. In fact, some handsets had capabilities that were unheard of (e.g., 41 megapixel cameras, 'liquid cooling', etc). The issue has and continues to be that the platform lacks the APPS and SERVICES people use. Don't get me wrong: I love Microsoft and wold be thrilled to go back to WP. But I won't do it unless it is practical.
  • Can't say I found myself missing any W10M Apps I'd otherwise find on iOS. Except for a UBS Banking App that would work with a NFC Card I found everything else on W10M which I actually cared for when I was still on iOS during the iPhone 4 era. Another App I'd find usefull, and which isn't available on iOS either, would be Tower for Drone flight/diagnostics which might actually become available once a W32 Phone arrives to the market - I could then actually use the full fledged MissionPlanner 2.0 Program. Other than that? I don't exactly feel like I'm missing out on anything =)
  • Problem is, the paradigm of a Pocket PC was looking successful for MS right up until Apple and Google moved things towards the phone instead. Now MS want to wind back the clock, only with the added restriction of constantly needing to find a monitor to plug in to. Is a regressive fight-back strategy a good idea? I hope so, but fear not.
  • This is my fear too. It will be very hard to gain traction without readily available monitors/keyboards/mice to maximise its potential. That's assuming it'll be more expensive than other smartphones because it would be presumably more powerful.
  • Continuum works on my TV, now. Those are really available.
  • There will be a monitor in your home, at work, in your car, hell I can see bars and restaurants putting monitors at the tables! Hotels putting monitors and docks it room. Just think, the barman/waitress doesn't have to take your order, just bring food and drinks and no waiting for the check! No more school books for kids, they just bring their pc to and from school. So many possibilities.
  • And all these things will be useless without a Windows phone? What is the point? Your data is already ubiquitous in the cloud and computer hardware is really cheap. This doesn't solve any problems. Some restaurant already have terminals at the table. They are cheap Android tablets that can play games and you can pay your bill and use your rewards. Why would I want to worry about connecting my phone to it and hoping it will work?
  • It actually does solve problems, but you wouldn't give Windows Mobile a break if it cured cancer.
  • Well rumor has it that it will be a westworld style tablet device. (foldable) so you probably would be able to use PC apps in tablet mode.
  • That is years away and Microsoft doesn't have a display department. Where are they going to get this display and how are they going to beat Samsung and Apple to it?
  • They already licensed bendable displays from LG I think. Edit:
    https://www.idropnews.com/news/lg-to-partner-with-apple-google-and-micro... There it is. It's set for 2018. Exactly the timeframe of Surface Phone. Coincidence? I think not! Also they don't need to beat apple and Samsung to it. They just need to do it better.
  • Right, but that means they will be competing with Apple for those Displays and I don't see Microsoft being the winner there. Apple just has too much volume, hey will be able to convince LG. Samsung will probably beat them all though. Now you have Microsoft, Apple and Samsung with bendable displays and the issue becomes software. Who has a great touch platform and apps available for it? Everyone but Microsoft...
  • Cshell, Neon, windows 10 on arm are all they need. And remember android nor iPhone have apps that can dynamically transform depending on the device. If they have foldable devices in the works. It will be a lackluster experience. It's not about who does it first. It's about who does it RIGHT and Microsoft has everything they need to do it right. They have been investing in the right technologies. Also if you haven't been following. Apps are a dead end platform. Bots are the future.
  • Android has had scaling apps since Honeycomb. That isn't exclusive to Microsoft. Bots still require the developer to support your platform. Take the new Starbucks app for instance. It is using bots and is only iOS with Android coming soon. What is the chance it will ever be on Windows?
  • No....no they haven't. Scaling didn't equal making the phone screen bigger. Geesh.
  • Oh, so I suppose that if you say that "they haven't", this Gmail app, for instance, just doesn't exist, right? http://i63.tinypic.com/176ahc.jpg Or maybe it's just scaling? Now I'm not sure, cause in that case we could probably call MS UWP also just "scaling". Not sure how deep is your knowledge of Android, but mr. bleached is right on this one, and even I, who is exclusivelly on MS "ecosystem", know, that scaling apps and adaptive UI is supported on Adroid since Honeycomb. Hell, even iOS has adaptive UI nowadays.
  • Microsoft is the only one who has adaptive UI NOW. UWP apps scale and fit the screen ratio and size. They are not just projected to the big screen like every other one is doing.
  • The only one? In your dreams – http://i63.tinypic.com/176ahc.jpg MS is only "the only one" who has the universal platform and adaptive UI extended also to the desktop PC evnironment, but otherwise adaptive UI which scales and fits according to the device and its screen size (and ratio) is pretty much strandard everywhere nowadays. Even iOS supports that for some years (so yeah, apps that are designed like that, such as Mail for example, can benefit from the larger iPhone Plus screen).
  • The way they did it with Surface Pro, Surface Book and Surface Studio.
  • Um, they could do like Apple does and contract with Samsung.
  • Doesn't have to be a monitor. How about a small projector. The Moto Z Insta-Share Projector Mod is pretty small and is around $250. Little pricey, but no bigger than a battery pack. If you are going to work on X86 apps you will want a keyboard/mouse, and MS's own foldable keyboard and Surface Arc mouse are exceptionally portable. There are lots of ways to skin this Ninja Cat other than a setup every where you go.
  • 👍
  • Andycalling I know what you mean the issue with wimo was it was to complex for most people and also abit to ahead of its time. I had various wimo devices and they had lag issues right up until the HTC HD2 that device was a beast and still held up well until a few years ago. What apple did was make things very simple and because if this it took off.
    For me I've never liked iOS or Mac devices but I do see why people went iOS instead of wimo. Microsoft tried to change things with Windows 8 but people were lost going from XP/7 to 8 but people seem to like windows 10 because it has a feel of XP and 7 if Microsoft are to make a phone they need to some how make it simple which is what wimo now is but it also needs the apps that people use day in day out which it is missing. Continuum is the one amazing thing about wimo though having a phone but a fimmimer Windows PC when using continuum could be the next step in PC/mobile/tablet market. Again it needs more apps that people use before it becomes a popular item like iOS and android.
  • I think Microsoft is losing an enourmous opportunity by not implementing CONTINUUM via Chromecast. Many tvs already have chromecast built in which if most hotels have these tvs and bluetooth keyboard/speaker/mouse/etc then the phone could easily adapt to the items in a room already available. Instead they insist on using a wire, miracast or other propriatary technology that is not highly supported. Perhaps there are royalties or cost involved but I believe that if you want your device to succeed, you make sure it supports all technologies so that the user can choose what to buy. From an apple standpoint it makes perfect sense why iPhone only works with Apple things. They are a hardware company and they want to maximize sales of all their products by making them compatible with each other. Microsoft does not build a huge selection of hardware, nor do all manufactures implement miracast or their preferred solutions so the answer would be to make your device as agile and adaptable as possible to the popular standards to empower user choice.
  • mymarcio, WP8 and WinMo10 supports DLNA and Miracast. If Chromecast is supported by the SmartTV, it means DLNA & Miracast are also supported since these are older tech. Which means You can already connect your Windows Phone to any SmartTV, even those that Don't support Chromecast.
  • Hi Eric,
    thanks for clarifying and explaining how the tech works. I guess my question then is, how do I connect my Windows 10 Mobile to the Chromecast TV I currently own. The iPhone sees it but the Windows phone... does not detect it. Using lumia 950XL. I've tried using the "Connect" setting and "Display > Connect to Wireless Display" and was unsuccessful.
    Do you (or anyone) know of a way?
  • AFAIK there's no such thing as a Chromecast TV. what brand is it? Samsung? LG? switch on the Miracast or Screen replication function of the TV. Make sure to allow your Windows Phone on your TV as an allowed device.
  • Older tech also means older b@st@rd business practices e.g. Sony only allowing other Sony devices to connect via miracast or bluetooth. Pay 5 times more to connect a wireless keyboard, that's nice...
  • It should be something, right now it's nothing.
  •   This is where Microsoft continues to fall flat - trying to push the PC into the mobile space without analyzing people use mobile devices. Why is Apple so successful? They understand the mindset between mobile (iPhone / iPad) and Desktop - how people interact with devices on the go vs. sitting at the desk. Where their strategy fails is when mobile and desktop start to blur.  Microsoft's problem is that they don't understand the mobile mindset. Continuum is a great idea, but they can't even get that the UI (not the OS) needs to be different on the Surface in tablet mode than it is when it's in laptop mode - they started to move in the right direction (for tablets) in Windows 8, but 86ed all that work in Windows 10 - now "tablet mode" is nothing more than "alternate app launcher". There's some hope because both the Hololens and the Surface Hub have a UI more appropriate to their form factors, but where is that work on the Surface?  If Microsoft isn't going to change the UI based on behavior, then the conversation is over and Windows will always only be a Desktop OS. If Microsoft let's go of the desktop mentality, THEN we can converse about moving the PC into the Mobile World. 
  • It's not a phone and Microsoft might be better off not calling one so people don't get confused. It's a PC that fits in your pocket and can work as a phone too. It won't replace phones and it would replace computers but it could be a big hit with someone who needs to buy a computer and a phone.
  • That's the point, when the low end laptop market swaps to a phone docked into a keyboard, mouse and monitor then why would people want to lug a second expensive phone around? Windows gets scale in the mobile space at last, and the only way to compete in that market is to produce a desktop os for android, talk about tables turned!
  • "They understand the mindset between mobile (iPhone / iPad) and Desktop ​" Seen their iPad Pro ads lately? They are doing everything they can to convince you that an iPad is a production device with a keyboard, pen and productivity apps. No, not desktop, but certainly laptop. Only thing it doesn't do is run X86 apps like my Surface 3 already does, for less money, with a mouse, which I am used to.
  • I have regular updates on my Surface RT. I wonder if MS is working on integrating that tablet UI into W10 somehow.
  • Hey Jason - Great article.  I believe you cover a lot of theories that should be included in a Sufrace Phone.  The one area I think that limits this possibility at this current time is the Networks.  The current 4g LTE signals are not strong enough to power such a device.  As we start to see the rollout of 5G testing and in 3-5 years when 5G is apparent throughout the country would be the time such a device would work as intended.   Currently today trying to place Skype, Messenger, Facetime or any other type of web video over a cellular network is atrocious to say the least.  The video is very grainy as well as choppy and sometimes hard to even see who you are chatting with.  As eveidenced in a couple of the screenshots you provided, Microsoft shows visuals of being able to video chat while multitasking on such a Surface Phone and today the network would never allow such a form factor.   5G will not only bring the high speed's that we do not have today +1gbps speeds but also extremely low latency which today is a real issue with 4g networks.    
  • I think you got the wrong idea here.
  • Heard of WiFi? I think that most places that you would use the device in its 'fixed' mode, i.e. with a keyboard, mouse, larger screen, you would have access to some sort of WiFi. Beyond that, the point of this is not so you can web chat or be entertained, it is to get stuff done. Doesn't take extraordinary BW to get that Spreadsheet, PowrPoint, Visio, or attach to that SQL backend.  As far as having to get a lot of files, my phone has a 128G SD card. That's as big as the SSD in my company desktop. I can just keep them with me.
  • Thanks Jordan. Well users wouldn't be restricted to cellular. As noted by SvenJ Wifi 📶 is usually available😎
  • Do MS know how to push anything? It's easy as a MS fan to look at the plan and think, yep ultra mobile pc is the future. I've had my 950 for around 18 months and apart from some glitches with Insider builds I'm super pleased with it. This week I read an article telling general public how the likes of Google and Apple we're going to introduce biometric unlocking of their phones using iris scanning. The article is full of all the positives of how wonderful this would be..... No mention of having this on the 950 for the best part of two years, no mention of Windows Phone in any way! MS have made some great improvements with W10M but there's not been any shouting about this, not any pushing this or real publicity and promotion. We know that MS came to mobile too later to beat the others but unless the general public start taking MS seriously it's just ever staying circles as more and more developers shy away for W10M and this more users. By the time the ultra mobile pc is real it'll be touch and go if it's already too late and no matter how many apps are available MS will be lucky to pull Apple and Android customers away from systems that they're already heavily invested in.
  • "We know that MS came to mobile too late" ??? Excuse me?? MS were in fact there all the time, they just weren't doing a particularly good job of it and got swept away by Apple and Android. Now they're busy trying to reinvent the phone, but pretending it's not a phone so they don't get criticized when it fails.
  • Analysis like yours are the point of reference to us of www.surface-phone.it blogger.
  • My view is that whatever the Surface Phone ends up being, MS are/have made a HUGE mistake abandoning the traditional mobile/smartphone market because the younger generation buying the Androids and iPhones will see Windows as a platform in it's entirety as something unfamiliar and, frankly irrelevant. It's great that MS 'create' categories with innovative hardware, but make it 'and' and not 'instead of'.