Today, Microsoft and Qualcomm took a huge step forward in their joint vision for Windows on ARM - a new computing category to beat the smartphone, and reign supreme over the converging worlds of portable technology and cellular.
It's not a phone from Microsoft. It's not a laptop, desktop, all-in-one, or a mini PC. More importantly, it's not a smartphone. So what is it?
Microsoft has tried many times to crack the smartphone market and failed. From the purchase of Danger, to the Kin, to the purchase of Nokia, to the slight success of the Lumia devices. Nothing really went Microsoft's way, as they tried to compete with Apple and Android. Buying other companies and trying to integrate them with the Microsoft universe never really worked. It was partly the chip and processor technology at the time, and partly the software at the time... but Apple made it work, and it Microsoft didn't.
More directly, Microsoft tried to make it work with Intel, and it failed. Apple made it work without Intel, and succeeded.
The huge win finally came Microsoft's way with the Surface series. A successful fully-potable combination of hardware and software meeting at the perfect time, establishing a new portfolio of devices and a new product category - that category popularly known as "the tablet that can replace your laptop".
It succeeded as a combination of internal genius - not from a purchase, but from developing the hardware in-house, in secret, and developing the software in-house, then working with Intel and manufacturing partners to optimise and commercialise the devices.
Smartphones are the wrong platform
Sadly for our friends at Redmond, they still had no success in the smartphone world. The Lumia 950 and Lumia 950XL held promise, but were never a commercial success. Even with Continuum on board, it failed to gain traction. Microsoft internally realised that smartphones are the wrong platform.
Microsoft's audience is Enterprise, Government, Prosumer, and Consumer. All of them currently use smartphones. None of them wanted a smartphone product from Microsoft. They looked at Microsoft and saw Windows, and if the phone couldn't do Windows, it wasn't worth buying.
So what they really needed, was a solution to this buying problem - they needed Windows on a Handheld Device. They didn't need a smartphone: smartphones are the wrong platform for Windows.
Windows on a Handheld Device
What the audience wanted, and what Microsoft needed to provide, was Windows on a Handheld Device. It had to be better than a smartphone. It needed to be the full Windows experience in your pocket.
That meant it needed hardware and software to unite in one vision. It needed the same Windows environment that you have on your PC, and to be able to do what your PC could do - and do it in your pocket or in the palm of your hand.
People wanted Windows, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Skype, Bing, Groove, and OneDrive to be portable. They wanted all the commercial software from Adobe and hundreds of other vendors in their pocket. This isn't a wimpy little smartphone, we're talking a full desktop PC in your hand.
Windows on ARM
Never one to do things by halves, the team at Microsoft had to tackle this challenge head-on, with gusto, and they had the full resources of a mammoth technology company behind them, with CEO Satya Nadella at the helm. The team argued their case, and they won.
More than Windows in your hand, they wanted the whole arm involved.
Suddenly there was a solution - Windows on ARM!
Not your physical arm, from your shoulder to your fingertips, but ARM - the processor architecture.
It needed to be a breakthrough success - and it would need to unite hardware and software like never before. It needed to be new, it needed to be stunning, it needed to blow Apple out of the orchard, and it needed to take Google's Android snack-flavoured-stack by surprise.
iPads and Android tablets are fighting in one corner, and the Surface is holding its own and winning in the other corner. They're not fighting against each other, they're different beasts. Microsoft needs a way to replicate this success with handhelds.
Do achieve this bold aim, they'd use the same model that worked so well for Surface: Working in-house, developing their own hardware and software, prototyping in secret, then demonstrating a working prototype to a partner to further commercialise the device.
Qualcomm's expertise in developing and commercialising a range of chip technologies fitted the bill perfectly. Qualcomm has experience with ARM processor design. They also have miles of experience with cellular, power optimisation, and system-on-chip. If Microsoft and Qualcomm could develop Windows on ARM together, in secret, then bust out an awesome device, it would be a huge win.
ARM-powered devices use less battery, produce less heat, can integrate graphics and connectivity, and can be built in to a small enough package to be handheld.
They were on to a winner. A small device with a huge future.
As for the hardware, all of the components could be neatly packaged into a system-on-chip, with a small circuitboard, a battery, a screen, speaker and a microphone. It would need the do-it-all port, a USB-C connector. Wrap it in a Surface-esque magnesium shell, with a Windows logo and a nod to Qualcomm, and job done. Almost.
As for the software, it obviously needed to run Windows. So Windows would need to run on ARM processors. Microsoft can do that.... can't they? Well... yes. Yes they can; and they did.
In late 2016, Microsoft and Qualcomm outed the project with a on-stage event that was perfectly executed, and for once, everyone shut the hell up and listened, watched, and wow-ed.
This was going to be HUGE.
Qualcomm did their part, betting that every future Windows on ARM device would need a Qualcomm processor.
Microsoft did their part too, betting that every future Windows on ARM device would need, um, Windows.
When can I buy this small device with a huge future?
Microsoft and Qualcomm will debut the first device in late 2017, going on sale in time for the Christmas gadget-buying season. The very first device is expected to be known as the Surface UltraMobile. It will be sold via Microsoft's online store and Microsoft's physical stores across the USA, UK, and Australia.
Next, a range of other manufacturers will debut their devices at CES in January 2018, with devices and accessories from partners such as HP, Dell, Lenovo, ASUS, Acer, and others, with the mammoth surprise partner being none-other than Samsung.
Huge News. Small Size.
The Surface UltraMobile will be huge news from Microsoft and Qualcomm. Its success will be determined shortly after its launch, when the usual Microsoft audience will sit up and take notice of a new device in a crowded market, because this is the device they wanted - a fully portable Windows Phone that does what a Windows Computer does: everything.
Until next time,
XYZ Media Group
In other Microsoft news:
Surface 3 inventory was due to sell out in 2015 but lingered on into 2016, and will not be refreshed.
Surface Pro 4 inventory has been ramping down on sale in 2016 and will sell out in early 2017.
Surface Pro 5 will begin production soon and debut by March 2017.
Surface Book 2 will debut by March 2017, and come in Book 2 and Book 2 Pro (Performance) versions.
A new version of the Surface Dock could add USB-C and Thunderbolt to existing devices.
Even the Surface Hub will get an update to the latest processors and touch technology.
Furthermore, the Surface Studio creative PC will see its guts replaced by the latest and greatest in processors, GPUs, RAM, and connectivity, including Bluetooth 4.2 BLE or Bluetooth 5, and give us what we've all been asking for since the stunning launch of the Surface Studio: USB-C 3.1 and USB-C-Thunderbolt ports.