It seemed inevitable that Microsoft would create a Surface Phone — not an official name — after it acquired Nokia. In fact, there was talk long before that too, but Microsoft has often denied those rumors and stuck with producing new Lumia phones. However, rumors and leaks regarding such a device have continued, suggesting it’s something the company may still be considering. Here’s everything we think we know about Microsoft’s Surface Phone project.
Microsoft may wait until late 2017 to release Surface Phone
After the Surface Phone failed to make an appearance at Microsoft’s 2016 BUILD conference, two reports from Windows Central quoting sources close to the matter, said Microsoft could wait until early 2017 to release the new device. The site’s late April report states April 2017 is the current target for the new smartphone. The first report said that instead of one Surface Phone, Microsoft could release three models. Early plans for the Surface Phone release allegedly suggest that there will be a consumer model, a business model, and an “enthusiast” model, or a high-spec version for tech geeks. Details about possible specs for the devices or what the difference will be between the three models have yet to be released.
The rumored timing of the Surface Phone has recently been pushed out to late 2017. This follows statements by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in November 2016 that provides a tiny bit of clarification to Microsoft’s official position on smartphones. Specifically, Nadella indicated that Microsoft does not want to simply compete with the industry leaders with a “me-too” device but rather wants to focus its efforts and develop the “ultimate” mobile devices. If one reads between the lines, it would seem that the Surface Phone will be a high-end smartphone that’s possibly aimed at providing very specific value to the business market, serving as a halo device for Microsoft’s long-term mobile strategy, or some combination of both.
Redstone 2 and 3 to improve Windows 10 Mobile
The Windows 10 ‘Redstone’ update, also known as the Windows 10 Anniversary update, came and went without any more information on the Surface Phone. The Anniversary Update provided a number of new features to smartphones, but nothing earth-shattering, and it will be the next two versions of the operating system that will focus on “innovation around mobile phones,” according to multiple sources speaking to Windows Central.
Redstone 2 and Redstone 3 aren’t expected until early and late 2017, respectively, the latter of which fits in with the prospective Surface Phone launch date now being rumored. When Redstone 3 does arrive, the resulting Surface Phone will apparently be promoted as the most secure phone in the world and the best for productivity. Part of this may include native support for Win32 apps provided by an enhanced version of the Continuum PC-like environment created when a Windows 10 Mobile device is connected to an external display, keyboard, and mouse.
The Lumia 950 and 950 XL offers some compatibility with x86 apps through Continuum, but no way to use them natively. Making them run on the phone without the help of a more powerful and expensive machine, might be a killer feature for power users. However, it’s warned the feature may be dropped before launch, if the experience isn’t polished enough.
Microsoft’s intention, say the sources, is to make the future Surface phone a true alternative to a PC, using both this feature and Continuum.
Benchmarks and high-end specs rumored, then quashed
A phone running Windows 10 and the Edge browser was spotted on the HTML5test benchmarking website in late November 2015. According to PocketNow, the version of Windows 10 was old, and one which was never released outside of the company, while the Edge browser was also older than the existing versions. The rumor suggested the phone was in testing for some time, and was likely an abandoned Nokia-derived device.
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More recently, Intel rumors have been challenged by Intel’s scaling back its mobile SoC market. Now, it appears that Microsoft will be working to emulate the x86 environment in 64-bit Windows 10 Mobile to provide support for full Windows desktop applications. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 SoC has been rumored to power the Surface Phone along with 64-bit Windows 10 Mobile. Two versions are alleged, including a 6GB RAM version with the version of Continuum supporting x86 applications and a 4GB RAM version without it.
Microsoft purchased surfacephone.com
If you’re looking for a hint that Microsoft will introduce a Surface Phone sometime in the future, then look no further than one Reddit user’s discovery in late January 2016. It appears that Microsoft owns surfacephone.com, and the company even went as far as redirecting it to the main Surface website.
Before you go jumping for joy, this is far from a confirmation that Microsoft is readying a Surface Phone. Often, companies like to stay out of legal trouble by registering domain names that correlate with a current product.
We also need to point out that surfacephone.com was actually registered in May 2007, so it’s not like Microsoft recently purchased it to get ready for a new Surface Phone launch.
Furthermore, Microsoft’s Surface page is within microsoft.com as in https://www.microsoft.com/surface/. Microsoft isn’t even using surface.com for its current crop of Surface devices, and so why would the company use surfacephone.com for a Surface Phone if it gets released? And by the way, Microsoft registered surface.com back in 1994 and is redirecting it to you know where … its main Surface Web page.
While this news doesn’t confirm a Surface Phone will exist some day, along with all of the other information being leaked it does give hope that the Redmond company is at least thinking about it.
Microsoft executive hints about a better phone
Those looking for more slivers of information about the rumored Surface Mobile device may want to take note of what Microsoft’s Chief Marketing Officer Chris Capossela said on This Week in Tech’s Windows Weekly podcast in December 2015.
“We need more breakthrough work … with Surface we had a bunch of early misfires, but that notion of a tablet that could replace your laptop — that notion of saying, ‘Hey, Apple wants to sell you an iPad and they want to sell you a Mac, we think there’s one device that exploits the seam between those two devices’ — we need some sort of spiritual equivalent on the phone side that doesn’t just feel like a phone for people who love Windows,” Capossela said on the podcast.
“It has got to be a phone that’s sort of like ‘wow, that’s a real shocker,’ or ‘that’s a real breakthrough,’ and has got to make me pause before I buy my 17th iPhone, and we need time to actually go built that.”
The question arises around the 36-minute mark, after tech writer Mary Jo Foley expresses her dismay at the current Windows Phone environment. Capossela made no mention of whether this “breakthrough” phone will be a part of the Surface line, and this new information only reaffirms that the device is indeed being developed by the company.
Rumored change in mobile strategy as Panos Panay takes charge
A report from Windows Central suggests that the Surface phone rumored earlier in the year has been canceled, in favor of a new Surface phone being built by the Surface team, led by Panos Panay. The old Surface Phone was apparently part of Nokia’s plans, which may have been scrapped when Panay took charge of the Devices division at Microsoft earlier this year.
The phone was previously referred to as the ‘Panos Phone’ according to Windows Central’s sources, though it has recently changed to becoming the Surface Phone, hinting it may have shifted from a pet project to something more official. Panos Panay is in charge of the team that designed the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book, meaning we may see a smartphone with a similar design.
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Rumors have spread about a Surface phone for years. In a WIRED profile on Microsoft’s Head of Devices Panos Panay last year, it’s mentioned that work was going ahead on, “a prototype of a new phone” at Microsoft’s HQ, indicating the firm is testing its own phones built internally. For now though, none of this is official, and everything could change again between now and the possible early 2017 release.
Only concepts give us a clue about design
Unfortunately, we have no idea what any Surface Mobile phone will look like, but concept renders were created by Nadir Aslam earlier this year. While the final Surface Mobile phone might not look like these renders, they give us a good idea of its possible productivity attributes.
The Surface Phone remains far from official, but we’ll keep you updated here with news and rumors about the device.
Article originally published in November 2015. Andy Boxall, Julian Chokkattu, and Christian de Looper contributed to this report. Updated on 04-27-2016 by Andy Boxall: Added further rumors pointing to a 2017 release, and comments on how a future Windows 10 update will affect mobile for Microsoft. Updated on 11-28-2016 by Mark Coppock: Added recent information from Microsoft CEO Nadella about “ultimate mobile device,” possible Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, and x86-support in Windows 10 Mobile Continuum.