The tech world is littered with the carcasses of failed products. In recent years, however, few failures have been as stark and symbolic as Microsoft's disastrous Windows Phone: stark because it resulted in the collapse of the ecosystem and a $7.6 billion write-down on Microsoft's purchase of Nokia; symbolic because it proved how dominant Android and iOS were in mobile.
Despite that humiliation, however, it seems Microsoft is going to give it one more go — but this time, it's going in a different route entirely. Over the past few months, there has been a trail of patent leaks and now a picture is emerging of what Microsoft has planned for mobile — not a smartphone, but instead an entirely new category: a "dockable, digital journal."
It's a high-risk move and appears to be deliberately niche. But it's also surprisingly intriguing, and suggests that if there is innovation left in mobile, it's in trying to create new ecosystems and products that extend beyond the smartphone.
The number and clarity of the leaks is a little surprising, leaving one to speculate that Microsoft may be doing this deliberately in order to gauge public reaction — and it's also reason for a healthy dose of skepticism. But here is what has emerged: The device, codenamed the Andromeda, is a combined software and hardware project. The hardware is a foldable tablet with a flexible screen and a unique hinge; it has a pen and functions as a kind of screen-based journal when folded. The software is focused on pen input and a version of Windows designed specifically for the device.
If that sounds a bit far out, it's because it is. According to enthusiast site Windows Central, the device is explicitly not meant to be pitched as a replacement for a smartphone, at least at first. Instead, recognizing that the vast majority of people would be loath to give up their iPhone or Android device, Microsoft is hoping the Andromeda is a niche but appealing productivity tool.
Part of the pitch is the digital journal aspect, focusing on pen input. The idea is that the device becomes a sketchpad or journal for quickly getting down ideas, while also being able to run smartphone-like apps — like a more specialized version of Samsung's Note smartphones that use a stylus. Whether or not that's appealing depends on how users feel about pen input; Microsoft recently decided to no longer include the pen by default in their Surface computers because of a division in users — those who use it regularly swear by it, while large numbers never touch it at all.
On the other hand, a recent patent suggested that when unfolded this pseudo-tablet could be plugged into a keyboard dock akin to Microsoft's Surface Book laptop. This seems genuinely intriguing. While the dream of a phone that can function as a computer has thus far fizzled, a device with an iPad sized screen when unfolded might be of genuine use, in part because Microsoft's new version of Windows for the device can run traditional Windows apps. That means you could check Twitter or send a text with the device when folded, and then unfold it, dock it and work on a spreadsheet on Microsoft Excel.
So: a digital journal for sketching ideas, that also makes calls and runs smartphone-like apps, and when docked, functions as a basic tablet two-in-one. As ideas go, it's a compelling one.
But while that does seem genuinely useful in theory, it's worth keeping in mind that Microsoft has had trouble with execution. Even the Windows Phone had some interesting features, but app selection, performance, and reliability all suffered due to a lack of focus and deep technical troubles with the platform. For Microsoft to pull off both novel hardware with unique hinges, a flexible screen, and a dock, in addition to a whole new software platform, is a monumental challenge, and one that the company has yet to prove it can manage.
All the same, there are also a series of moves that suggest it's moving in the right direction. The Surface Pro LTE model, which connects to the internet via a cellular connection rather than a modem, was recently released to good reviews, suggesting Microsoft is committed to the idea of mobile computing. Additionally, Windows on ARM chips, the kind used in smartphones and tablets, will be released this year and promises long battery life and compatibility with the tens of thousands of existing Windows apps.
But the issues that are most perplexing and genuinely interesting here are strategy and potential market response. The smartphone duopoly is firmly entrenched. Rather than attempting to face Apple and Google head-on in the smartphone space, Microsoft is attempting to do an end run around them, hoping to create a new mobile category that supersedes our iPhones and Androids. By doing so, they're also hoping to kickstart an ecosystem around the digital journal. It's the riskiest part of the play, but also the most exciting.
It's a classically disruptive move — don't compete directly, create a whole new category that cannibalizes what came before but also adds something radically new. After all, for all the many failures in tech, there have also been once far-out-seeming ideas — the iPhone and Facebook among them — that turn into home runs. Whether Microsoft's idea will prove to be one of those or just another failure remains to be seen — but at least they appear to be trying something genuinely innovative.