Of Microsoft’s Hard/Software Future

It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything on Medium. And it took a Surface event where Microsoft introduced two 2020 products to make it happen. And, well, inspiration from a tweet. That tweet in question was this one:

This right here was the inspiration for this post…

Just 14 words says so much for the future of one company. Let’s jump in to what was announced and why it matters.

Everything prior to the Surface Duo and Surface Neo announcement felt like incremental improvements to an already solid lineup. That solid lineup, however, was not without its disruptions to the industry years ago.

There was the 7th generation Surface Pro. A device that originally took an industry that felt like tablets were going to be revolutionary (at the time: the iPad) and turned it upside down…or horizontal with a kickstand. If you recall, the iPad was supposed to kill the PC, but it ended up being an auxiliary device for media consumption for most of the consumer market. Yes, even today Apple is struggling with making the iPad Pro (which was a direct response to the Surface) relevant in the professional community in revolutionary ways. In a way, the iPad is on its own incremental path. But the thing to note with the Surface Pro is that it was highly questionable and took years before it not only carved out a niche, but became an inspiration for countless knockoffs (which include the iPad Pro and even a couple Pixel devices).

Surface Pro 7 with USB-C

Then there were the Surface Laptops. A 3rd iteration of the 13.5" model and a (new) 15" model equipped with AMD innards. The Surface Laptop was never a revolutionary device like the Surface Pro. It was always a traditional clamshell laptop, with a somewhat unusual/revolutionary feature: the Alcantara deck fabric. And while that deck fabric is still available on the 13.5" model in some configurations, it’s curiously absent on the 15" model. Making the 15" model even more of a traditional device. For a company that forayed into the hardware game with the Surface lineup intended on making big, creative and revolutionary splashes (Surface Pro, Surface Studio, Surface Dial, Surface Book, Surface Hub), the Surface Laptop is very much a traditional device. A gorgeous, traditional device, but still traditional. This is of note later.

Surface Laptop 3 15" in Matte Black

Then there were the Surface Earbuds, which at first glance appear to be a traditional device in a market flooded with Apple AirPods, Samsung Galaxy Buds and a host of others. But at further glance, it’s equipped with touchpads, AI integrations to do real-time translation and solid battery life. You can see some of the revolutionary touches that typically befit themselves in the Surface lineup. More here: https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/p/new-surface-earbuds/920bnghqjshs?activetab=overview

Surface Earbuds

And then there were the Surface Pro X, the Surface Neo and the Surface Duo. The Surface Pro X isn’t so much revolutionary as it is iterative and paints the future of Microsoft devices and software that might have been missed if you just looked at the exterior. But the interior is running an ARM chip. A custom Microsoft ARM chip called the SQ1. More here: https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/surface/business/surface-pro-x/processor

The Microsoft SQ1 chip

Microsoft partnering with manufacturers like Qualcomm isn’t anything new, however an ARM chip in a Surface product harkens back to the Surface RT running Windows RT. If you recall back to that device and operating system, it was severely limited because it only ran applications that were compiled for ARM (as opposed to x86 or x64). But this iteration of Windows on ARM doesn’t require applications to be compiled for ARM. Some takeaways directly from Microsoft on app compatibility:

Most apps run on ARM-based Windows 10 PCs with limited exclusions.

Supported apps

Most x86 Win32 apps run on Surface Pro X.

Native ARM64 and Microsoft Store UWP apps provide an excellent user experience utilizing the full native speed of the ARM-based processor while optimizing battery life.

Apps that use drivers designed for a Windows 10 PC running on an ARM-based processor.

Not supported

x64 apps won’t run on a Windows 10 PC on an ARM-based processor.

More here: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/surface/surface-pro-arm-app-management

This is an interesting development as Microsoft *is not* neglecting the industry push for more mobile devices, regardless of whether they’re tablet or phone factors. They may have retreated in the past with Windows RT, but they realize that serviceability of devices and app compatibility is the only viable option forward…which is why the Surface Pro X came to be. And, similarly, Microsoft’s retreat from the phone hardware industry appears to following the same re-emergence. Which brings me to the Surface Duo.

The Surface Duo is the “Surface Phone” (not the real name). And it’s not running Windows.

Wait, what?

That’s right. It’s not running Windows. It’s running Android. Microsoft’s first Surface phone is running Android and not Windows Mobile/Phone OS or some variant of Windows. Holy smokes. This is *major*.

This isn’t Microsoft’s first sashay into Android. But it *is* their first commercial hardware product running Android. To understand this fully, you need to understand a little bit of history of how we got here.

Project Astoria, also known as Windows Bridge for Android, was an internal project and initiative to get Android apps to run on Windows Phone. It would do so by leveraging an Android subsystem.

There was also Project Islandwood, a Windows Bridge for iOS.

All you need to know is that these were announced in early 2015. However, .NET and C# is Microsoft’s flagship development framework and programming language. And both Project Astoria and Islandwood left bad tastes in the mouths of C# developers as Java and Obj-C would seemingly become near 1st class languages in Windows Phone/Mobile. Microsoft heard this loud and clear, and…

Xamarin. A cross platform development framework and tooling that uses .NET to create apps for both iOS and Android. Xamarin was founded in 2011, but has its roots in Mono (launched a decade earlier in 2001), an open source project that aimed at getting .NET to run on Linux. Microsoft acquired Xamarin *officially* in February 2016. And then promptly killed off both Project Astoria and Project Islandwood. C# to build cross-platform apps for Android, iOS and Windows Mobile (and other frameworks) was here to stay; and Obj-C and Java as potential 1st class languages on Windows Mobile/Phone died before it really, truly lived.

The next few years could more easily be described as a slow, painful and eventual death of Windows Mobile/Phone. As a matter of fact, the end of life support for Windows Mobile is December of 2019 (see: https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/help/4485197/windows-10-mobile-end-of-support-faq). Yes, we’re 2 months away from the official death of Windows Mobile. It largely never took off due to the lack of app support. There’s an entire history on how Windows Phone was late to the party, but there are countless articles out there rehashing Steve Ballmer’s failure to challenge the iPhone prior to Android emerging.

So the fact that Microsoft is jumping back in the phone industry (even though Microsoft tried to not sell the Duo as *just* a phone) is a big deal. The fact they’re doing it with Android is a *bigger* deal. It tells a lot about the future of Microsoft. They’re partnering with Google on the Duo, which is essential from a support perspective. And, really, I want to tie back in what I was saying from the beginning with Surface Pro and Surface Laptop.

On the one hand, we have the Surface Pro. The first revolutionary hardware device from Microsoft. On the other hand, the Surface Laptop: a traditional hardware device from Microsoft. Roughly 4 years apart. Why is this important?

I see the same direction from Microsoft with the Surface Duo. Enter the market with a niche product that is, in ways, revolutionary. The Duo is a big bet from Microsoft. It has to include huge amounts of R&D time and money. So to just release a single phone running Android, especially since it’s their first Android device, would be foolhardy. The future of Microsoft’s mobile vision is attached at the hip with Android. And it’s nearly entirely driven by wanting to link Windows machines (desktops, laptops, hybrids, etc.) with mobile devices like the Duo in the same way that Apple has with their Macs and iPhones. I fully believe that the Duo is the first of many Android phones from Microsoft. They’ll start with a revolutionary device (similar to what they did with the Surface Pro) and then in short order (like Surface Laptop) we’ll see traditional Android phone form factors. And I’m here for it. The Surface lineup, regardless of form factor, is made up of gorgeous, well made devices. And just by seeing an early edition of the Duo makes it seem that it’ll keep that same tradition. So to borrow WalkingCat’s tweet:

Neo might shows the future of Windows, while Duo maybe the future of Microsoft — WalkingCat (h0x0d)

I strongly agree.

OK. One last puppy to wrap up this post. The Surface Neo. The Surface Neo has a long, long, long, *long* history in the Windows community. We have to go all the way back to 2008 when the Microsoft Courier was first reported (and subsequently canceled in 2010): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microsoft_Courier

The original Microsoft Courier concept (Surface Neo’s predecessor?)

It’s amazing how similar the Surface Neo is to the Microsoft Courier.

These types of devices are transformative not just to an organization, but even an industry. Think about what the Surface Pro did to the PC and tablet industries. And while I don’t necessarily think that the Surface Neo will have nearly the same kind of sales numbers as the Surface Pro, it will set the standard of what a “folding” device should be. And in much the same way that the Pro set the standard for the professional tablet industry, I think we’ll see the Surface Neo be a sort of reference design for Microsoft’s manufacturers. And by letting the consumer community, developer community and manufacturers know a year+ ahead of time (it’s not going to be released until holiday 2020), it allows both the Neo and Windows 10X to adapt prior to its release. And that’s a good thing.

You win some, you learn some. Dad, developer, doer.