Although it has occasionally been a point of ridicule, I commonly refer to myself as one of the world’s last Windows Phone holdouts. Given my attachment to my aging Windows Phone device, I had been eagerly anticipating Microsoft’s Project Andromeda.
Project Andromeda is Microsoft’s code name for the development of what many refer to as the Surface Phone. Unfortunately, Microsoft recently put the Andromeda Project on an indefinite hold, effectively killing the project. Sources inside Microsoft cite the somewhat lacking application infrastructure as being the reason why the plug was pulled on the project. If this turns out to be true, it is completely understandable given that the lack of apps has commonly been cited as the primary reason behind the demise of the Windows Phone. Even so, I think that there are some insights to be gained from Project Andromeda with regard to the future of mobile devices.
Not just Windows Phone 2.0
Project Andromeda was more than just a new version of Windows Phone. There were two unique things that it was allegedly going to bring to the table. First, the devices were said to use an entirely new form factor, which I will talk about in a moment. The other thing that was noteworthy about Project Andromeda is that the devices could supposedly act as both a PC and a phone.
I actually saw a demo of this particular capability at the Microsoft Ignite conference in Chicago a few years ago. A seemingly innocuous Windows Phone device was paired to a Bluetooth-enabled docking station containing a keyboard, mouse, and monitor. Upon wirelessly connecting to this docking station, the device took on the role of a Windows 10 PC (with the exception of the fact that it could not run desktop applications, thereby making it more like Windows RT). The really cool thing about this demo, however, was that the device itself continued to function as a smartphone while it was being used as a PC. In other words, one person could be working on an Excel spreadsheet while someone else was talking on the phone or playing a game.
Andromeda’s new form factor and its dual use operation point to something that has long been lacking in the smartphone industry — innovation. While it is true that the Apple iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy both contain novel features, smartphones, in general, have become commodity devices. Smartphones have become so pervasive in our society that most people probably don’t pay that much attention to what type of device another person happens to be using. From across the room, the latest and greatest iPhone could easily be mistaken for a 5-year-old device made by a competing manufacturer. I’m not trying to single out Apple or disrespect their products. Instead, I am trying to illustrate the idea that pretty much every device that is available today uses the same basic form factor. From a distance, all of today’s smartphones look alike, and they all do basically the same thing.
It hasn’t always been that way, though. In the past, for example, I have owned several Windows Phones that were equipped with slide-out keyboards. You can see a couple of examples in the photos below.
Another smartphone that I once owned had a clamshell design, with one half of the clamshell comprising the screen, and the other half containing a touchpad and a series of hardware buttons for dialing the phone.
Who remembers HP Jornada?
Without a doubt, my favorite mobile device that I have ever owned was an HP Jornada. Technically, this device would not qualify as a smartphone because it lacked the required connectivity (it did, however, support WiFi and had a built-in modem). The device was about twice the size of a modern-day smartphone and looked like a tiny laptop. You could interact with the device using the hardware keyboard (which works surprisingly well), a touchscreen, and a stylus. The device ran a Windows Mobile operating system. You can see a photo of my old Jornada (which still works after all these years) in the photo below.
Admittedly, these devices were somewhat conventional, but over the years I have seen some mobile devices that used radically different designs from what we commonly see in day-to-day life. The most memorable of these devices was one that I saw at a tradeshow about 20 years ago. Unfortunately, I can’t remember who made this device, and I don’t think it ever made it to market. However, the mobile device was cylindrical in shape and was about the size of a can of Red Bull. To use the device, you would hold it up to your eye and looked through a viewfinder to see the tiny color screen inside the cylinder (color screens were unheard of on mobile devices of the time). One side of the cylinder contained two buttons that functioned like the buttons on a mouse, while the opposite side of the cylinder acted as a touchpad. Hence you could operate the device with one hand.
As unique as this particular device was, there is a reason why that particular design never caught on. It wasn’t exactly practical. Even so, the device underscores the idea that mobile computing does not have to be limited to the bland form factor used by almost all of today’s devices.
Microsoft’s Project Andromeda was an attempt to break away from mundane, mobile device hardware. According to various sources, Andromeda devices were about the size of a modern smartphone, but used a clamshell form factor that opened like a book. The thing that made this form factor so unique was that opening the device exposed two screens. In a leaked picture that I saw a while back, it appeared as though an application was running on the left screen, while someone was taking notes using a Service Pen on the right screen.
Sadly, Microsoft has tried to create such a device in the past and canceled that device as well. A 2009 YouTube video shows the Microsoft Courier tablet that is essentially a larger version of Andromeda.
Based on the photograph that I saw of Andromeda, it seems that the Andromeda device would have addressed two of the biggest shortcomings of modern smartphones. One such shortcoming is the lack of screen real estate. Let’s face it, you can only cram so much stuff onto a 5-inch screen.
The other challenge that the Andromeda device would have solved if the picture is authentic is that it would’ve made it much easier to run applications in parallel. Modern smartphones are generally able to run multiple apps at the same time. However, switching back and forth between apps can be a pain, and there typically isn’t a viable option for having two apps on screen at the same time. A few weeks ago, for example, I needed to email someone a few details from a spreadsheet. I constantly had to switch back and forth between Excel and Outlook rather than just being able to look at the spreadsheet while I was typing the note. A device with two separate screens would have presumably solved this problem by allowing two different applications to be visible at the same time.
Project Andromeda: Probably dead, but probably not buried
Sadly, I think that there is a good chance that the Andromeda project will never see the light of day. Even so, I don’t think that the work that Microsoft has done will be completely in vain. Project Andromeda clearly illustrates that it is possible to combine the functionality of a PC with the convenience of a smartphone, and illustrates beyond any doubt that the current smartphone form factor can be improved upon. Whether Microsoft eventually makes a Surface Phone device, or someone else borrows a few ideas from the Andromeda Project, I think that smartphone technology will improve as a direct result of the work that Microsoft has done.
Featured image: Wikimedia