THE SURFACE MOBILE - 2017'S 2007 IPHONE?

Surur reporting for MSPoweruser on the latest Surface patent discoveries:

The detailed images in the recent patents, however, give us a rather good look at the device and are somewhat reminiscent of the Surface Studio patents, which were in the end remarkably true to the device which Microsoft eventually delivered.

For reference, MSPoweruser first reported on the Surface Studio patent at the end of August 2016. It was announced only two months later on October 26. For comparison, the original iPhone was announced around six months before it went on sale to avoid a patent filing spoiling the reveal. Microsoft either doesn't care about this sort of thing like Jobs used to, and/or this could be a patent for a device that they don't want to announce because it may get shelved at any point. There's already a Surface precedent for a last-minute cancellation. In the meanwhile, recent reports do support the idea that the device if released will be arriving sooner rather than later. And what it will look like can't be dissimilar to its patent design going by Microsoft's past record - this patent drawing of the Studio is the Studio.

The patents all focus on the details of the hinge, with the mechanical engineering largely going over the top of our heads, but the patents do make it clear that the device will have 3 configurations – 0 degrees closed, 180 degrees flat open and 360 degrees fully open.

Missing is a tent mode configuration enabling a kickstand-like experience. Given the apparent flexibility of the hinge, it must be possible and may have been a configuration considered not worth a technical mention.

The patent writing clarifies what the 360 degree configuration is:

Instance Five shows the device in a closed orientation (e.g., angle .alpha. equals 360 degrees). This orientation is identical to the orientation of Instance One except that the inward and outward facing surfaces are reversed.

Such a configuration would have no screen facing outward; the patent does state this orientation can also be termed a closed configuration. Keeping one smartphone screen from wear and tear isn't easy, especially if you, like me, prefer to keep the device case-free. Add a second screen, and, yeah, I can see why such a configuration exists. It may also be a byproduct of the hinge mechanism's flexibility that preventing a 360 degree rotation would have compromised. It would also give the device the Moleskine feel Panos had compared the cancelled Mini to.

The patent also notes that when at 180 degrees the inside screens will show a single user interface, while in the other configurations the device will show separate interfaces on each screen.

This design fits the phone-that-may-not-look-like-a-phone phone that Satya Nadella recently teased about. More importantly, such a device could set the mobile productivity benchmark. I say could, and not would, because it's the hardware enabler of productivity as long as the software is there to accompany it.

I don't like the idea of the phone's back being a second screen when in a conventional smartphone configuration - glass's tactility isn't as warm and inviting as other materials like Surface magnesium. However, thinking productivity, I can see it playing an effective role. It could default to OneNote re-enforcing the Moleskine metaphor. Or you could change it and temporarily pin an app for easy access - think Maps when on holiday, Twitter during a live event etc. The only other dual-screen device I am familiar with is the YotaPhone - its second screen offers a different experience though via an E Ink display. It may have not sold many, but as a proof-of-concept it got a pass.

Magnets and clever hinges would be used to hold the device in the various configurations and to create a near seamless surface when fully flat.

It's in the 180 degrees configuration when this device will get to show off its chops. This config could create a new device category that may end up being considered the successor to the phablet - not a phone with the characteristics of a tablet, but a phone that is a tablet too. As long as the two screens feel like one with imperceptible bezel. I'm optimistic this config will also allow two separate apps to run side-by-side. Considering I've unexpectedly found split-screen on my 5" Nexus helpful, the idea of two full-screen apps next to each other will feel luxurious in comparison. It's also something Microsoft has hinted at in the past.

The images also for the first time gives us a clue to the size of the device, with the scale of the camera port suggesting a smartphone-sized device rather than a book-sized tablet.

If the device in its compact form is as big as the smallest tablet, then this device immediately becomes much less interesting. That is highly unlikely considering the cancelled Mini was a 7" tablet, and Satya labelled this device as a phone. What appeals is a smartphone that can transform into a tablet (two device categories there's currently no marketed Surface for after the Pro recently started being sold as a laptop). Not a Courier-like device because for it to be your primary productivity companion, it needs to fit in your pocket.

The inventor listed on both patents is Kabir Siddiqui, who had earlier patented the Surface Kickstand.

I love many things about my Surface Pro, but the kickstand is easily in the top three. I remember a general concern when the Surface was originally announced was whether the kickstand will hold up with time. I've owned three Surface devices and the kickstand has never shown even a sign of wear.

Kabir has been at Microsoft for more than 20 years and seems to keep a low profile. Interestingly, he had nothing to do with the Surface Book hinge - that was Errol Tazbaz's patent. What I take from this is the new Surface's hinge won't feel similar to the Book's. That's a good thing as far as I'm concerned because I find the kickstand integration to be more elegant but it was an admittedly more straightforward design challenge than the Book's hinge whose design has since been one-upped by no other than Porsche.

Tuesday, June 13 - 6:21 pm

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