We’ve seen over the past few months a growing number of signs that Microsoft is developing some kind of dual-screen pocketable device, codenamed “Andromeda.” There are all sorts of patents, and new Windows APIs include telephony support and support for dual-screen devices with a hinge between them. There’s even a rough release schedule, with the hardware due to come later this year.
But throughout it all, I’ve had a consistent question: why? What value will such a device bring, and why would anyone buy one?
It appears I’m not the only one to ask such a question. Mary Jo Foley, as well-connected as anyone writing about Microsoft could hope to be, has some bad news about Andromeda. At the very least, the device is probably delayed: software features that it requires apparently aren’t ready for release in the next major Windows 10 update, version 1809, due in about October this year.
While the new APIs do suggest that something along the lines of Andromeda is in development, we haven’t seen, for example, any signs of the new shell that would be needed to run Windows 10 on a smartphone-sized gadget. There have been rumors that such a shell is being developed, but we haven’t yet seen it leak. Microsoft would also need a range of phone-sized applications. While Windows 10 Mobile has a bunch of applications that would serve as a good starting point, one would hope that they’d need to be updated and refreshed for a new device.
Moreover, the report says that there’s no guarantee that the software features will be ready for the major update after that, codenamed 19H1. Most Andromeda development was done when Terry Myerson was leading the Windows and Devices Group at Microsoft. With Myerson departing and Microsoft reorganizing, these development priorities were always likely to change, putting Andromeda in jeopardy.
But while the software issues are important, Foley says that there’s a more fundamental concern hanging over Andromeda: it doesn’t have a purpose. Even if the software were all in place, there’s no point in bringing a product to market that nobody wants to buy, and at the moment, there’s no obvious reason for anyone to want to buy an Andromeda. As a phone-sized gadget, it needs phone-sized software, and Microsoft’s problem in this space is, and always has been, a lack of software support. Third-party support for Microsoft’s platform was always lacking, and in the later stages of Windows 10 Mobile’s life, even first-party support was lacking.
To overcome this lack of software, Andromeda would have to be so enabling that people were willing to buy one even without strong third-party application support, just so that they could enjoy its strengths. But what does adding a second screen enable? This has never been clear. The device needs to open up new possibilities and handle common tasks better than a phone or laptop does, and the mere presence of a second screen does not do that.
The patent pictures suggest that Microsoft has designed a smart piece of hardware, but like the Surface Mini in 2014, if the device won’t make sense on the market, the company may well cancel its release. Of course, there are now reports that the company is trying again with a small Surface after all. So we wouldn’t completely count out Andromeda just yet.
In fact, even Andromeda isn’t a completely new idea: Microsoft killed off a previous two-screen hinged device concept, Courier, back in 2010.