Design patents sometimes offer insight into where a company may be steering its technology. Alternatively, the company may just be locking in an idea to prevent the competition from lifting it.
Whether this new Microsoft design patent for the Surface dated March 28, 2017, is going into actual production is unclear, but none of the observed changes would be unexpected.
The design patent in question is US d782,469 S and was initially filed on March 30, 2015, but updated a few weeks ago with some new drawings.
As a design patent, no technical specifications are noted on the Surface, but there are some apparent changes from previous filings e.g. US D680,530 S0 (PDF).
The two distinct alterations are the removal of the Surface Connector for powering the tablet and moving the standard headphone jack from the upper left side to the lower right one.
The idea of Microsoft moving away from a limited proprietary AC adapter to a standardized USB Type-C – preferably with full Thunderbolt 3 support – is very much in line with most manufacturers these days. Even Apple famously surrendered its MagSafe power adapter with its new MacBook Pro laptops.
Not only can USB Type-C act as the power port on a PC or tablet, but if configured for Thunderbolt 3 it can be used for data, peripherals, external GPUs, and powering 4K displays. Additionally, it's physically smaller than Microsoft's "fin" Surface Connector.
Of course, for the drawing it could also just be "generic port".
The other shift with the headphone jack also makes sense. One minor complaint about the current Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book is the headset jack location. It's a little odd to have headphones connected to the top of the tablet with the cord having more hang area. The moving of the jack to the lower side while not monumental would be a welcomed modification.
Keeping all the I/O to one side would also be a nice aesthetic design. Finally, it does look like the USB Type-A and Mini-DisplayPort are also represented in the updated Surface design patents suggesting they will remain.
Surface Pro 4 refresh or something else?
Whether Microsoft implements port changes for the rumored Surface Pro 4 hardware upgrade remains to be seen. Caution needs to be taken that a design patent in and of itself is not a "leak" confirming the existence or any approved plans by Redmond.
Indeed, there is nothing in the design patent that denotes USB Type-C making this strictly inference and therefore, unreliable as proof of anything.
Also, instead of Surface Pro 4 redux, Microsoft could be saving this either for a real Surface Pro 4 successor or perhaps for a non-Pro Surface running Windows 10 Cloud, which may be forthcoming.
Recent rumors suggest we may hear more about a new Surface in early May perhaps related to the Build developer conference. That refresh could bring minor changes (like above) along with 7th Gen Intel "Kaby Lake" processors for improved performance and battery life. None of that would at all be surprising.
For now, we'll just have to chew on the possibility that Microsoft may be at least considering another adjustment to the Surface line, one that we think most people will welcome.
Special thanks to Cassim Ketfi for the assist!