Microsoft: Just bite the bullet, release Surface Andromeda

Expectations revolving around Microsoft's unannounced Surface Andromeda are reaching particularly ridiculous levels, I say ridiculous because this thing hasn't even been announced.

Owing to leaks, patent filings, code snippets from the Fast Ring, and other rumors, we have a fairly complete picture of what Andromeda may look like. A folding tablet, with telephony, inking, powered by a new Windows variant OS, running apps from the Microsoft Store. Andromeda would be a versatile powerhouse that, sure, might not replace the average consumer's smartphone, but I've seen enough people carrying iPads around in tandem with their laptops and smartphones, all at once, to know that this thing has a market, albeit niche.

I have zero doubts about the engineering prowess of Panos Panay's Surface team. Like with the Microsoft Courier, what could prevent Andromeda's release is company politics and the cowardice of upper management. I say grow a spine, Microsoft.

Surface Pen

Surface Pen (Image credit: Windows Central)

Rumors of a delay, even cancelation

Andromeda was a featured a bit in the news last week, after The Verge leaked an internal email detailing how they're aiming to build a disruptive product. Soon after, ZDNet reported that Andromeda had been delayed, or even canceled, as Microsoft struggled to find a real reason to release this thing.

The fact ZDNet received negative intel about Andromeda, not even a couple of days after The Verge leaked, what appeared to be, a positive email, seems to point to internal strife surrounding the product. ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley noted that sometimes leaks occur to try to drum up public support for a product facing cancellation. I certainly saw this myself with the Xbox Career system, where a flurry of leaks in a short space of time, along with some continued insistence that it was still on the way, was quickly undermined when Xbox CVP Mike Ybarra said that the system was no longer in development. Could Andromeda face the same fate?

Disruptive products, niche products

Microsoft doubtlessly shelves projects all the time, but Andromeda is something the world has never seen before, at least not from a large mainstream tech company. Sure, there have been tech demos, and hacked-together Android concepts, but there hasn't been a company to come forward yet and say "this" is a new form factor we're going to support within our ecosystem. Windows, and Surface, are uniquely positioned to power a tablet of this type.

Windows Ink, while niche, certainly has its fans and users. If it was a true failure, Microsoft would have stopped releasing countless updates to its Surface Pen line. The Surface Studio, widely rumoured to get a second outing, is the ultimate expression of the inking use-case, with an absolutely stunning screen focused around digital art production. You could say the Surface Studio is a niche within a niche, yet Microsoft still decided to not only release it, but likely support it with a sequel. Why is a truly pocketable mobile sketchbook so taboo for Microsoft?

Unintelligent edge

Concept artist David Breyer's reportedly accurate Andromeda renders.

Concept artist David Breyer's reportedly accurate Andromeda renders.

The tech press is already railing against Andromeda, seeing it as another reboot of Microsoft's doomed mobile aspirations. Windows Phone 7 failed, 8 failed, 10 failed, hard. We all know the story. Rather than soldier on with Windows 10 Mobile and Lumia, Microsoft shelved it, depriving UWP of a small screen endpoint, which I'd argue has killed the entire platform. In response, Microsoft changed the way it's thinking about mobile and devices in general, which they call the "intelligent edge."

The over-reliance on the third-party "intelligent edge" is harming Microsoft's operating systems, and by extension, OEM, app developer, and consumer confidence.

Microsoft is the king of "missing the boat." Rather than invest in some kind of smart speaker, or double down on Kinect for Xbox One, Microsoft allowed Amazon to move in and begin dominating the smart home speaker market, and by extension, IoT devices. Now it has to rely on Amazon playing nice to deliver Cortana to Windows users, which, in turn, allows Amazon's Alexa to encroach on Windows PCs. The over-reliance on the third-party "intelligent edge" is harming Microsoft's operating systems, and by extension, OEM, app developer, and consumer confidence.

Microsoft's "intelligent edge" mantra seems like a bit of an excuse to avoid taking risks on Microsoft's part. Redmond hopes that it can rely on third-party platforms to play nice when it releases its software and services on their mobile platforms, shirking the responsibility of providing UWP devs or Windows users the option of not having to buy into the Apple, Amazon, or Google ecosystem for a pocket computing device.

Intelligent edge excuses.

Intelligent edge excuses.

This reliance on the goodwill of companies and ecosystems that have been openly hostile to Microsoft in the past, I'd argue, is far riskier than simply attempting to provide endpoints for its own ecosystem. Apple recently slapped Valve from the iOS app store, blocking Steam Link from its entire platform. Both companies are currently working to get Steam Link on iOS, but it sounds as though Apple will expect some form of cut for allowing Valve essentially take engagement away from the App Store. This could bode ill for Xbox cloud streaming, or at least its profitability.

That's just one example of a way Microsoft's reliance on external ecosystems can hinder the company's potential. I'm by no means suggesting that Microsoft has any chance of catching up at this point when it comes to mobile ecosystems. That ship has not only sailed, but violently sunk to the bottom of the ocean. I am saying, however, that there should at the very least be an option. A presence. The lack of a small screen endpoint for the Windows ecosystem is a glaring missing link.

Andromeda opportunity

Microsoft's "future productivity" concept vision may be realized by Redmond's competitors first, due to cowardice.

If Microsoft has the opportunity to show it can take risks, and not only build unique devices, but support them, I believe that it would have a cascading effect on Windows and the PC market in general. The dual-screen form factor has all sorts of exciting use cases. Microsoft needs something to showcase Windows' versatility as a platform, as it seeks to embed eSim technology, LTE, progressive web apps, to create more nimble always-connected mobile-like PCs. The rumored smaller Surface device will already begin blurring these lines, the logical next step is something that truly can fit in your pocket.

Release Surface Andromeda, you cowards.

Sure, there are many moving parts that need to align to make this work. If it launched today, a Surface "phone" tablet would have no WhatsApp, essentially killing it as a primary mobile device in Europe. It would have no real high-quality music service, since Spotify isn't UWP-based, and Groove Music was killed.

It requires all new technology to work properly, new Windows features, and a new developer SDK. It needs every department at Microsoft pulling in one direction, backing it, investing in it, and believing in it.

These days, I'm simply not sure Microsoft is capable of taking real risks anymore (I actually have a bet with Senior Editor Zac Bowden that Andromeda will never come out). This aversion to danger is what has led to Microsoft missing the boat on so many damn things it easily had the power to take a leadership role in. If Microsoft doesn't start caring about pocketable small-screen computing soon, not only does Windows itself runs the risk of becoming obsolete, developer and consumer confidence in Microsoft to launch and properly back new products will continue to run on empty.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!