Hoping for Microsoft's mythical Andromeda in your Xmas stocking? Don't hold your breath

This whole business is starting to look like a cargo cult

Finding a new form factor for personal computing is harder than Microsoft thought. Reports suggest Redmond has gone back to the drawing board for its "Andromeda" handheld device due to incomplete software.

So the mythical computer looks like the victim of another Redmond reorg. In March, the Windows and Devices Group (WDG) was carved up – some parts went to a new "Experiences and Devices Group", and others to a new Cloud and AI division. The former head of WDG and the champion of Windows Phone, Terry Myerson, left in the reshuffle.

"Surface Phone" and then Andromeda speculation has circulated for years since Microsoft withdrew from the handset business; the final Lumia models emerged in late 2015 and early 2016.

Microsoft seemed to have the pieces in place with Windows returning to Arm processors, this time with legacy support. But naturally it looked for a novel pocket-friendly form factor that could differentiate the product from commodity phones and tablets.

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Patents emerged showing that Microsoft had done plenty of work on a hinged dual-display device – the "PhonePad" here and here, and most recently a flexible booklet-style device – even after its Courier dual-display tablet, a kind of "digital Moleskine", was scuppered on the runway – the victim of another bout of Redmond infighting.

ZDNet Microsoft correspondent Mary Jo Foley's sources still hold out some hope for Andromeda hardware appearing next year, however. She noted this week:

Andromeda or its successor could still end up coming to market at some point and attempt to fulfill Andromeda's original goal: A portable, multi-screen Windows-10-based device. But if that happens, expect something more akin to a small foldable PC type form factor rather than a phone-sized device, sources say.

MS patent paperback

From a published Microsoft patent application. Click to enlarge

But it's hard to see what might change in the interim. None of the key arguments against Andromeda will have changed in six or 12 months' time. The boardroom question "Why are we even in the hardware business?" does not have a compelling answer today, and will not have one better in 2019.

Vanity hardware

These reasons are really twofold. The hardware wars are over – phones, tablets and ebook readers are widespread and a commodity – leaving only niches, and you can only provide limited additional value for the user from that niche: a new small pocketable thing. Microsoft can't compete with Apple, Google and Amazon on apps and content, as its Store is so much weaker. For niches, for devices that do one or two things well, this doesn't matter so much, but it does still matter a bit.

One idea might be to drop Windows 10 on the Planet Gemini, a terrifically useful form factor that compliments what people already have, and can even replace it reasonably well. Although that idea would meet strong resistance from Redmond's not-invented-here lobby. Why patent all those clever hinges only to use someone else's, they would doubtless argue.

It may well be wiser for Microsoft to wait until a breakthrough technology such as the flexible display becomes plausible, otherwise this whole business is starting to look like a cargo cult. ®




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