Microsoft’s handheld mobile device saga lives on in the hearts of enthusiasts, even though the passion for Microsoft seems to have faded. That’s not to say Microsoft doesn’t have ambitions when it comes to handheld devices. Surface Andromeda, a foldable, inking-focused handheld running Windows Core OS (originally Andromeda OS, now possibly Santorini), has been at the center of what could have succeeded Windows phones.
Unfortunately, Microsoft has pushed Andromeda to the background as it invests in less risky projects (i.e. Surface Centaurus). Yet the main challenge for Microsoft’s Andromeda Surface is also a challenge for Samsung’s Fold and Huawei’s Mate X: What benefit do folding devices offer users?
Microsoft could not determine a sufficiently convincing positioning strategy for Andromeda, so it placed this Pocket PC under Windows back burner. Samsung, Huawei and more have embarked on the exciting Android-based adventure foldable phones which are (for now) more proof of concept than practical solutions to user needs. Companies are investing in market, developer and user feedback to make improvements in subsequent generations of these phones to make them more attractive and affordable. Microsoft’s Surface Andromeda, as a digital newspaper-focused pocket PC, would have been a different type of device in this pocket-sized foldable device space; and even with its challenges, it may have had some advantages over Samsung and Huawei’s offerings. From an internal Microsoft email: “This is a new handheld Surface device form factor that brings together innovative new hardware and software experiences to create a truly personal and versatile computing experience.”
Like Huawei’s Samsung Fold and Mate X Surface, Andromeda would have been a first-generation device in a new category. Its target market would have been a niche and untested, and the goal would have been to build awareness and support for the category in the future. Put simply, Surface Andromeda in 2019 would have been the start of a long game for a category of Pocket PCs that Microsoft would have hoped to mature over generations, OEM support, and a support ecosystem. Anyone looking at Samsung and Huawei can see this strategy in action for the foldable phone category they are striving for.
Both devices are a technician’s dream, but at $ 2,000 or more and few compelling use case benefits, they’re far from practical for consumers or professionals at this price point. The large screens, powerful processors, sufficient storage and memory, remarkable cameras and more are impressive. And the extra space for games, media consumption, or web browsing when unfolded in a tablet comes in handy. Still, if the main argument is that the phone “gets bigger” to do more when unfolded, then the folding, while useful, isn’t convincing enough.
Surface andromeda, CoreOS, CShell advantage
I concede that Microsoft’s Andromeda Surface is missing while Samsung and Huawei have real devices coming to the market. Still, if Microsoft had launched Andromeda, I think this Pocket PC would have had advantages over foldable phones from Samsung and Huawei.
I think Windows offers a more robust platform for desktops, tablets, and handhelds. As shape-shifting devices disappear, Surface Andromeda needed to be capable of desktop scenarios when docked (think Continuum), be used as a tablet when unfolded, and function as a desktop computer. pocket or phone when folded, as well as as a digital journal.
OneCore ensures that Windows in all form factors has the same basis. With Windows CoreOS, Microsoft is starting from its position as a robust Windows PC and “chiseled” Windows to adapt to mobile contexts (Santorini) and tablets while retaining certain advantages of the office. Combined with CShell, which conforms the Windows user interface to different screen contexts, I think Surface Andromeda would have “bent” for a bigger purpose than just providing more space.
Just one more to fold
With Microsoft’s Andromeda rumor, it was expected that software or UI would “become” what hardware becomes. Simply put, when the device unfolded into a tablet, the user interface was to become an ideal tablet user interface for tablet use; when folded it would become a portable UI, and when docked it would launch into a desktop UI. Windows OneCore, through Windows CoreOS, allows Microsoft to work from a more complex operating system, keeping some of these desktop strengths for desktop mode while lightening the operating system for mobile contexts as well.
Conversely, Samsung and Huawei’s foldable phones use Android, a mobile-centric operating system with a less than ideal tablet experience and a worse desktop experience. Android (and iOS) are evolving from a lighter and less complex mobile user interface while trying to adapt to more complex computing. Simply put, as these devices move from phone to tablet they’re still phones and right now trying to be a desktop isn’t even a realistic goal.
Microsoft’s Andromeda would have had its flaws, namely a deficit of apps and developers that would make its laptop (phone) experience as bad (or worse) than its old Windows phone experience. Nonetheless, Microsoft’s approach to the contexts of handhelds, tablets, desktops and digital newspapers with a single device is broader and would likely have benefited from a more uniform operating system base and more. ” a more flexible user interface adapted to the context.
The “HoloLens Model”
For now, foldable phones are proof of concept with no clear target market. Ideally, they will be for everyone as businesses find out what works and what doesn’t, software matures, and developers find creative ways to optimize apps for foldable devices. I am convinced that will happen. So what should Microsoft have done instead of pushing Andromeda into the shadows?
Andromeda is a digital journal for creatives: people like researchers, educators, journalists, marketers, artists and more. Like HoloLens, Microsoft should have released Andromeda in specific industries and methodically developed the software and hardware in various use cases. Its digital inking and collaborative focus within Microsoft’s Surface environment, supporting services such as Microsoft 365, Dynamics 365, AI, Paint 3D, White Board, Teams, Skype, Cortana, and many more, reportedly could be adapted to workers in various sectors.
I recently shared Microsoft’s three mobile visions: cross-platform support, Surface Andromeda (also always connected PCs) and HoloLens; and they can all coexist. It would have been great to see Surface Andromeda, even if it was only a business at the moment, following the HoloLens model.