Foldable phones are the next big thing, according to many in the tech press. This is one of those product categories like AR Headsets- they are perpetually 6-12 months around the corner. If you ask Mike Elgan, Microsoft’s foldable Surface device, reportedly codenamed Andromeda, is poised to take over the world and make the iPad and other tablets irrelevant. Well, I don’t make a habit of listening a guy who still insists that Google Glass was a success, and that Apple got the smartwatch all wrong by not focusing on the enterprise market before targeting consumers for advice on where the mobile technology puck is headed next.
Still, there’s no sense in throwing the baby out with the bath water because of one guy who has an ax to grind with Apple. If you take off the fanboy glasses, the Andromeda is actually a very interesting potential product. Microsoft may have failed miserably with the Windows Phone platform (which I actually liked) but this product would have the ability to flip the scrip and instantly get Microsoft back into both the smartphone and the consumer tablet markets. How? By putting Windows 10 on usable Surface hardware that fits in your pocket. If Microsoft could pull off the combo of hardware polish and software optimization, it would definitely make for an interesting device.
Now, Microsoft and others have tried and failed at this before. I still have a Casio Cassiopeia A-20 PDA from 1997 in my “museum collection” of ancient mobile tech devices.
This was actually my very first PDA back in the day, and it ran a cut down version of Windows called Windows CE. That OS eventually morphed into Pocket PC, and later on, Windows Mobile. While the later versions were designed specifically with stylus-driven phones and PDAs in mind, the original Windows CE was intended to put a version of Windows complete with Word and Excel in your pocket. The early devices had clamshell designs and small keyboards, making them look like mini laptops. Unfortunately, they were FAR from that level of capability.
Things didn’t work out quite like Microsoft planned. Along came Palm with a smaller, simpler, less expensive device that was designed with mobility and simplicity in mind, and absolutely ate their lunch. Windows CE devices were more complicated, too large to fit in a pocket, and a lot more expensive. At the end of the day, no one wanted the Start Menu on a mobile device. Microsoft eventually got the message and adjusted accordingly.
Windows CE wasn’t the only false start down the path to a pocketable computer OS device. Sony and a smaller company called OQO actually made some very small portable computers with slide-out keyboards running Windows XP or Vista in the mid 2000s.
They were actually really cool concept devices, especially considering their size. However, they were quite cumbersome to use with their tiny keyboards and controls, were noticeably underpowered, had short battery life, and were very expensive. Like $1500-$2000 for a fairly limited machine expensive. These mini computers were also way ahead of their time, and were pushed out of the market by small Windows netbooks, followed soon after by the original iPad.
It’s been a while since these and other alternative devices disappeared from the market. All of the current focus on mobile software and hardware is centered around iOS and Android at this point. They have completely sucked the air out of the room, and competing platforms like Blackberry, Nokia’s various offerings, and the aforementioned Windows Phone, have all faded away. However, as good a job as Apple and Google are doing meeting the needs of mobile users, the tech world will benefit from additional choices and innovation. A more mobile friendly version of Windows 10 (I HATE using touch in the current version) running on a new and interesting hardware platform sounds like just the thing.
So why do I believe things potentially be different for Microsoft and Andromeda today than they were for the devices touched on above? Because mobile processing power, software optimization, and battery tech have all come far enough to make a compelling device in this form factor possible. If Microsoft could deliver such a device at the right price, people would buy it.
Unfortunately, it sounds like the future of Andromeda may be in doubt before it ever gets off the ground. There are varying rumors about what’s going on. According to longtime Windows expert Mary Jo Foley of CNET, a recent shake up of Microsoft’s Windows staff may have something to do with Andromeda taking a back seat for the time being. Tom Warren of The Verge tweeted the following:
So like @maryjofoley I’m hearing Andromeda is definitely not coming in 2018. OEM devices may come, but not with Andromeda OS as it’s not ready. The entire project is now under review because there’s no app ecosystem to support it
I’ve seen lots of “Microsoft shouldn’t cancel Andromeda” articles. It should have been clear with the recent reorg that Microsoft is looking at its future and Windows differently now
I genuinely hate to see this, because Andromeda is just the kind of form factor I want to see all of the major players tackling in the coming years. I find the comment about a lack of an app ecosystem troubling, because it just seems so shortsighted. 10 years ago, Apple built the perfect delivery device for its time in the iPhone 3G and an App Store that connected developers directly with their customers. There wasn’t an app ecosystem ready made for them. Apple built it, and the developers came in droves. Now, I understand that today is a different time. The App Gold Rush has come and gone. That said, for all of the time and effort they have poured into their Surface line, Microsoft seems unwilling to truly get behind its Windows Store and push it forward. If you don’t built it, no one will ever come. Why would they? Microsoft has never give anyone a compelling reason to.
As Mr Warren states, other Windows OEM devices with foldable form factors are on the way. Unfortunately, they won’t have the software optimization that would have likely made the Andromeda a more polished experience. Both Warren and Foley state that the new OS pieces that would have set the Andromeda apart are not being included in the next major Windows update. So, whatever does come out will likely be a lot more kludgy than what Microsoft had planned.
Don’t bother telling me about what Samsung has planned. The tech world is already aware that they will be bringing a “foldable phone” to market soon. That doesn’t do anything for me. I would shell out my own money to buy an Andromeda, but you won’t catch me doing the same with a Samsung product. It will be just another Samsung device running TouchWiz over Android. Oh goodie. More like, no thanks.
The promise of Andromeda was seeing if Microsoft could finally make a desktop-level OS work well on a piece of hardware that can fit in your pocket. We are at a point where this should finally be possible. This device wouldn’t have been a real direct competitor to the iPhone and iPad, the same way that the current Surface devices are more laptops than direct competitors with consumer tablets like the iPad. It represented a new mobile hardware class that could potentially offer us some unique and interesting use cases and experiences.
Like the Surface Studio and Surface Book, Andromeda seems like just the kind of experimental device that is perfect for what Microsoft has been doing with the Surface line. “Look at what we can do with Windows on this hardware.” With the changes at Microsoft, it looks like that spirit of experimentation may be extinguished, and like the mythical Courier of years ago, the Andromeda may be another interesting device that Microsoft ultimately didn’t have the courage or stomach to make. After seeing the huge early success of the iPad, I’m sure Microsoft execs regret the former. They may ultimately regret this decision, as well.