Microsoft's Windows 10 Devices event on Tuesday goes down as one of their best shows yet. The presentation was convincing, there were no real lags, and the products announced were all awe-inspiring. Well, almost.
One area though that was rather peculiar was in regards to Panos Panay's presentation on new Lumias. Specifically, the short duration and lack of enthusiasm were quite evident. It felt like he wanted to get through it get on to the real story, those new Surfaces. I even joked that Microsoft may squeeze in the Lumia 550 during the event, and sure enough it got about 15 seconds of stage time.
Not the Microsoft Lumias you were looking for?
I have been talking about these new Lumias for some time on our #AskDanWindows series specifically about the origins of the phones. It should be clear that these new Lumias are carryovers from the Nokia days and not "pure" Microsoft devices. That is not a slight against how good they are – something we still don't know much about but rather a clear observation about how Microsoft feels about these phones.
It should be obvious that Microsoft stands firmly behind these devices like any other Lumias. As they should, they pack more hardware and features into one device that many Android ones spread over a range. Expandable memory, Qi wireless, an iris scanner, Gorilla Glass 4, liquid cooling, Continuum, and a killer camera are all a big deal. Still, they feel like stopgaps a bit too.
Remember, these Lumias started at Nokia during a big transition time for the company. They were not designed from scratch by Microsoft something I expect to happen sometime in May 2016 with their long-gestating Intel-powered phone aka "Surface phone," which I mentioned back in July (see below).
What was on stage
When you take a look at the Band 2, Surface Pro 4, Surface Book and HoloLens, there is a clear cutting-edge design aesthetic running through those devices. The Band 2's fantastic display, which is much more touch-sensitive is a carry over from the Surface. Even the Lumia 950 XL's liquid cooling system is borrowed from the Surface.
Should we be surprised at any of that? Not at all. Panos Panay is in charge of all Microsoft hardware taking over the Lumia division in July. Panay even hedges at the beginning of his Lumia presentation saying he has only worked with that team for a "very short time." I read that – as did many others – as code for 'Hey, these are not my phones, and I would have done things differently.' It's distancing.
Thinking about it makes sense. The Microsoft hardware team clearly agonizes over minute details in their creations. When handling the Band 2 you can feel the engineering quality. And don't get me started on how radically insane the Surface Book is from a design perspective.
When you see all of Microsoft's new premium hardware and then glance over at the Lumias you cannot help but see something is, well, off.
Continuum is just the beginning
Microsoft Continuum for the phone is easily one of the most interesting aspects of the new Lumias. However, being able to run Universal Windows Apps on a large display means you are carrying a Windows RT device around with you. Granted, in Windows 10 the UWA model is much better, but you still cannot run x86 apps on your phone.
If I had to guess – and once again this should be evident – Microsoft keeps talking about "Windows 10 in your pocket" and that idea only really resonates if you can run full desktop apps.
I have reported before about a Microsoft-Intel phone, and my bet is Microsoft's goal is for you to be able to run x86 apps with Continuum from your phone. What we see with the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL is one step towards that goal. You can hear more about that in Episode 4 of #AskDanWindows from August, including some well-informed foreshadowing about this "Surface phone".
AskDanWindows Episode 4 - When can we expect Win10 Mobile with Intel?
This goal is not easy, but the technology to enable it to happen is finally within reach. Just listening to Microsoft's language about Continuum tells you that yeah, they want you to have a full PC in your pocket (yes, and we've come full circle with the PocketPC branding).
I still don't know if we will have a Surface phone per se, but you can bet that Microsoft is going to go for something crazy now that Panay and his group are heading things. Remember, Surface is more than just a name, it's an idea. These Lumias don't fit.
This situation is one of those "good news / bad news" moments. The bad news is what I have been saying for months: these are not pure Microsoft phones. But hey, new high-end phones with Nokia DNA is still a good problem to have. I have no concern about picking up a Lumia 950 for my usage (I worry more about the OS part).
The upshot is we have witnessed Microsoft being very serious about hardware, not just in attempts but delivering high-end, premium, hardware that leave people shocked. Is there any reason to believe Microsoft cannot do the same with phones? They can and I'm sure they will.
Just ask yourself: Would the same group who made Band, Surface, now Xbox and even HoloLens make the Lumia 950? Probably not. So, if those phones feel out of place, well, it's because they are.
Panos Panay only took on the phone development team in late July. That should tell you something about whatever comes next. Does that mean you should skip the Lumia 950 and 950 XL? Ultimately, that depends on your wallet. If you don't mind getting a phone a year – which is where things are going now – then I'd grab a new Lumia and use it until Microsoft's next big thing. I am and have no qualms about it.
I think the important message after Tuesday's event is that Microsoft is very serious about hardware – all hardware – and we still have to see their full effort in every category. It doesn't even matter how well these new Lumias do, to be honest. If Microsoft can build a killer product like the Surface Pro 3 / 4 and Surface Book they can also drive demand for a world-class phone in 2016. They are capable.
Apple did it, and Microsoft proved Tuesday they can do it too. Doing yet another high-end phone won't save Windows 10 Mobile, but Microsoft has shown they can go beyond just specs and I think they will.
Buckle in, folks, we're in for a very exciting Microsoft lead future. You should be convinced that Microsoft and phones are here to stay. We haven't seen everything yet.
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Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics, watched people sleep (for medical purposes!), and ran the projectors at movie theaters because it was fun.