Will a 2017 Windows Phone ‘Proxy’ for the Real Surface Phone Satisfy the Masses?

Surface Phone

According to the most recent information from an ‘almost credible’ source, there will be no Surface Phone this year. Instead, Microsoft is expected to release a Surface Phone perform-alike (but not with Surface Phone branding) that runs Windows 10 Mobile just like Lumia devices. While that may or may not be true, digging into it a little bit might reveal some useful information.

The ‘almost credible’ part comes from the fact that, if there is a delay with Surface Phone for some reason, it would make sense for Microsoft to release a stopgap non-Surface device that, at the very least, carries some of the features expected on the Surface device. It’s also credible that Microsoft would want to test out some of the features in the real world to help collect large amounts of data required for the final version of a PC-like phone.

Remember, Microsoft is trying to do the unthinkable here. They’re trying to squeeze all the tech required for a PC into a much smaller device that needs to have adequate memory, sufficient processing power, desktop app emulation capability and a lot of things we typically only see in a desktop device – or a tablet, at best.

Getting the footprint of such a device down to the size of a smartphone is, in itself, a huge challenge. But Microsoft wants to do that because it is the only way the software and cloud giant can manage to eke out a fair market share from the likes of Apple and Samsung, not to mention Google and Huawei, among others.

Another thing to keep in mind is that a delay of more than a year and a half, which was the time frame that the source indicated, could prove disastrous for Microsoft. In fact, it could put paid to their smartphone plans altogether. Windows Phone is already dead – or dying – and Windows 10 Mobile is not exactly a “preferred” sales channel for app developers. If delayed, that would lend credence to a stopgap phone that can do some of the things that Surface Phone will ultimately be able to effortlessly do.

The third element is the investment and effort that’s gone into setting Microsoft up for success in the smartphone segment. The acquisition of Xamarin, the creation of UWP, the push for more UWP apps, the sidling up to Linux after years of being at odds with open source – all of that has been carefully put in place so a device like the Surface Phone would have a healthy and growing collection of apps to play off of, and an engaged community of developers with the right tools to keep the UWP app family growing at a clip.

Microsoft is not interested in creating ‘another smartphone’; their thoughts are focused on a different kind of mobility that is independent of what device you’re using. In a way, many elements of upcoming Windows 10 versions are aligned with that effort. They’re doing a concerto, and Surface Phone is the soloist.

That’s why Surface Phone is so critical to the future of Microsoft’s smartphone ambitions. It’s not a smartphone in the traditional sense. It’s exactly what Microsoft calls it – a Cellular PC.

When you look at it in that light, it makes sense for Microsoft to have a stopgap device in the interim. Until all the parts are in place, Microsoft won’t be ready to launch Surface Phone.

Moreover, their attempt at Windows 10 on ARM is full of hurdles. They have the failure of Windows RT staring them in the face, and they can’t afford to have a smartphone that only runs a restricted set of apps. No one wants that, least of all Microsoft. In addition, the performance of app emulation needs to be flawless, which is the area we suspect Microsoft and Qualcomm could be facing delays with.

In fact, that is likely the most plausible explanation for a delay in launching Surface Phone in 2017.

All these challenges are what makes the source’s claim ‘almost credible.’ Unfortunately, we can’t see into the workings of the Surface Phone engineering and software teams, so we have to take what the source says with a pinch of salt.

That said, there’s still a chance Microsoft could release the actual Surface Phone this year. If they and Qualcomm are able to crack the Windows 10 on ARM problem once and for all, it will be an achievement of epic proportions. Such a device can potentially disrupt the entire mobile ecosystem, attacking iOS and Android at their weakest points.

There are also several reasons why Microsoft can’t afford to wait until the end of 2018 or early 2019 to release Surface Phone, and we’ll get into that in a subsequent article. To give you a clue, it has to do with Google’s efforts at bringing Android to the mainstream desktop environment.

For now, let’s just say that Microsoft will lose a lot of mileage and goodwill if they release a half-baked Surface-Phone-like device this year, but it might be the best possible thing to do under the circumstances.

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