Posey's Tips & Tricks

Microsoft's Surface Phone: Rumor or Reality?

Windows Phone may be dead in the water, but based on Microsoft's recently disclosed plans for Windows 10 on ARM, the company's mobile aspirations are still going strong.

About a month ago, I was sitting in at a table at a beach café in California checking my e-mail when some guy came up and asked me if I was using a Windows Phone. He seemed completely bewildered as to why I would use something so old.

I will be the first to acknowledge that I may very well be the world's last Windows Phone holdout. Even so, I don't have any plans of switching to something else (at least, not until my phone eventually dies). I like the Windows Phone interface, and the phone does exactly what I need it to do, so there is no reason for me to switch to a different mobile operating system. Besides, I have published multiple books about the Windows mobile OS, so I have something of a personal attachment.

Although Microsoft put the final nail in Windows Phone's coffin with the notorious Nokia fiasco, I have been hearing increasingly frequent rumors of a Windows Phone resurrection in the form of a new Surface Phone.

Even though I have been hearing whisperings of a Surface Phone for over a year now, I didn't find the rumors to be credible. Windows Phone suffered such a crushing defeat in the marketplace that a decision to rebrand and re-release a Windows-powered smartphone would seem to defy logic. 

More recently, however, a leaked document, believed to have been first spotted by Thurrott.com, revealed at least the possibility that Microsoft may be working on a Surface Phone.

Let me say upfront that the document never once mentioned Windows Phone or Surface Phone. What the document did reveal, however, is that Microsoft has been hard at work on making Windows 10 run on ARM devices.

Now obviously, running Windows on an ARM processor is nothing new. The ill-fated Windows RT Surface tablets ran a stripped-down version of Windows 8 on an ARM processor. As such, the news that Microsoft is working on running Windows 10 on an ARM device might easily be dismissed as little more than Microsoft repeating its mistakes from the past. However, there is more to the story.

The reason why Windows RT was such a flop is because the devices were extremely limited in their capabilities. Surface RT devices were only capable of running apps from the Windows Store, and even then, not every Windows Store app was compatible with the devices. It was the lack of available applications and the inability to run x86/x64 applications that led to the device's demise.

According to the leaked document, the Windows 10 ARM devices will be able to run x86 desktop applications -- within limits. The primary limitation is that only 32-bit applications will be supported initially, although support for 64-bit applications is supposedly in the works. Unsurprisingly, Hyper-V won't be able to run on the ARM platform, nor will utilities that interact with the hardware or OS at a low level.

In spite of these and a couple of other limitations (such as lack of support for OpenGL), most business applications will presumably be able to run on the devices.

This, of course, raises the question of why anyone in their right mind would want to buy a Windows 10 ARM device, when they could get a full-featured Surface Pro or Surface Book instead. While I don't claim to have a definitive answer, there are a couple of thoughts that come to mind.

One of the advantages to running Windows on an ARM processor is that such a device may be able to deliver far better battery life than an x86 device, and would probably provide instant on/off capabilities, like what iPad users have become accustomed to. However, the design may also make it possible to run Windows desktop apps on a smartphone.

Several years ago, I tried running an RDP client on my phone to see what it would be like to use a desktop application on my smartphone. The application was, of course, running on a normal PC that I was remotely accessing from my phone. To say that using desktop applications from a phone was impractical would be the understatement of the year. The experience was horrendous. Even so, there may be a method to the madness.

Windows 10 (as it exists today) has a built-in feature called Continuum. Continuum is designed to adapt the user interface to the device that Windows is running on. It provides an experience that looks a lot like Windows 8 when Windows is running on a tablet with no keyboard or mouse, and provides the normal desktop experience when Windows is running on a PC.

A few years ago, however, there was a demonstration of a very different Continuum experience at a Microsoft Ignite breakout session. One of the hardware vendors (I think it was HP, but I can't remember for sure) demonstrated a Windows 10 phone that could be docked and used as a desktop PC. Granted, this phone suffered from the same limitations as Windows RT in that it could only run Windows Store applications, but it was still an amazing demonstration. The device could act both as a PC and as a phone. When the device was in its docking station, Continuum made it difficult to distinguish the device from any other desktop PC. When undocked, the device screen looked like a normal Windows Phone.

I can't help but wonder if we are going to see this type of Continuum experience rolled into a Surface Phone, but with the ability to run both Windows Store apps and desktop applications. Only time will tell.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 16-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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