Microsoft’s dual-display Surface could emulate Android apps

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  • March 4, 2020
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Many leaders of big organizations, I think, don’t believe that change is possible. But if you look at history, things do change, and if your business is static, you’re likely to have issues. —Larry Page

If a phone is a content-consumption device, maybe this is the Surface ‘phone’ that people hoped for. A new report from IHS Markit suggests Microsoft may build Android emulation into future Surface devices, specifically the rumoured ‘Centaurus’ dual-screen PC said to launch early 2020.

Microsoft has started to demonstrate new dual-screen Surface hardware inside the company. Sources familiar with Microsoft’s plans tell The Verge that the company recently held an all hands event for its devices team, where it showed a sizzle video for new Surface devices and dual-screen prototype hardware. Employees even formed long lines to get a closer glimpse at this new Surface device.

Microsoft has been building a new dual-screen device, codenamed Centaurus, for around two years, and it’s designed to be the hero device for a wave of new dual-screen tablet / laptop hybrids. Windows Central first reported on the Centaurus codename back in December, and we understand it’s more similar to Microsoft’s Courier tablet concept than the company’s previous Andromeda effort.

Microsoft has never officially confirmed the existence of Andromeda or Centaurus. “It’s absolutely my baby,” explained Microsoft’s Panos Panay in an interview referring to rumors of a pocketable Surface. “We will invent and we will create when products are right. We can’t bring new categories into the world and not be a place where customers need it.”

IHS Markit told Forbes that the dual-screen device, with two 9in displays, would be powered by Intel’s 10nm Lakefield system-on-a-chip. Microsoft’s new Windows Core OS (WCOS) will serve as the operating system, IHS added. (Microsoft hasn’t confirmed that it’s necessarily working on a future successor to Windows, but we know that devices like the Surface Hub 2 will include new ‘experiences’, said to be WCOS.) IHS also said the device would include 5G WWAN connectivity. While that itself would not be surprising, Microsoft has yet to design a Surface that has made LTE or 5G connectivity part of the base platform. Assuming IHS Markit’s report is correct, the new element would be the inclusion of an Android emulator. (Microsoft hasn’t yet commented, and we wouldn’t expect them to; IHS Markit also hasn’t responded to a request for further comment.)
Several Android emulators already exist for Windows PCs. BlueStacks is a favourite, though KoPlayer, MeMu, and others all provide alternatives. All three run within a virtual machine within Windows, just like Windows Sandbox.

A Surface for consuming content?

When word of ‘Centaurus’, er, surfaced before, we wondered if potential buyers would really want to work on a dual-screen device, given the lack of a proper keyboard. It’s possible, however, that Microsoft sees Centaurus more akin to a traditional smartphone: much more of a pocket computer than a traditional phone, and much more of a content-consumption platform than a traditional Surface. Though Microsoft Office apps exist for Android and iOS phones, it’s a safe bet that the primary task of content creation occurs on traditional PCs with a keyboard. Intel’s Twin Rivers concept PC that the company showed off at Computex still provides one of the best justifications of that premise.

While that device was shown running a traditional Windows 10 installation, the scenarios that the company showed – such as a comic book reader – were much more geared toward recreational content-consumption than anything else. In that concept, Windows 10 looked like an afterthought. Windows can run in a relatively low-power environment – either on top of an Intel tablet processor, or else even an ARM chip such as the Qualcomm Snapdragon. Run an Android emulator on top of it, and the performance requirements remain minimal: BlueStack 4 requires just a fourth-gen Core i5 for optimal performance.

Intel’s Lakefield seems like overkill, but we don’t know anything about its performance, save for the fact that its big-little architecture uses the same power-sipping design techniques as ARM. Microsoft obviously failed in the phone market. Former chief executive Bill Gates recently admitted to the failure of Windows Phone as his greatest mistake. Microsoft’s ARM-powered Surface Go hasn’t dramatically changed the world, either. What’s telling about the Gates interview is that he admits that the lack of apps was a critical element in Microsoft’s failure in the mobile market. Android solves that problem.

There’s still a big question – if an Android emulator is the key, why not just buy an Android phone? – but
Microsoft’s thought process on dual-display devices may be becoming clearer. Maybe this will be the
Surface ‘phone’ that everyone expected.


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