Microsoft Patents a Phone with Foldable Screen

Posted on January 16, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Mobile, Windows 10 with 32 Comments

Microsoft Patents a Phone with Foldable Screen

A newly-discovered Microsoft patent indicates that the software giant is investigating a new Continuum form factor: A phone that can transform into tablet thanks to its foldable screen.

News of this patent was first discovered by MSPowerUser, but perhaps I can provide a bit more context to what this means, and whether we’ll ever see it in a shipping product.

You can see the patent application for yourself on Google Patents. It describes “a mobile computing device [with] a flexible hinge structure.” It bridges the gap between a phone form factor, with its small screen, and a tablet form factor, with its larger screen, by providing a single, foldable display.

It supports three main usages scenarios and is thus a “3-in-1” design, which one might naturally think Microsoft would be attracted to.

“A ‘tablet’ configuration may be supported in which each of the housings are ‘laid flat’ such that an entirety of the display device is viewable by a user,” the patent application notes. “In a ‘phone’ configuration, one of the housings may be stacked behind another one of the housings such that the mobile computing device may be easily grasped using a single hand yet still provide a portion of the display device that is viewable by a user. In a ‘closed’ configuration, the display device may be positioned internally in the stacked configuration and thus may be used to protect the display device when not in use.”

It’s worth noting that Microsoft has showed off something a bit like this before. It’s Future Vision 2020 promotional video, from way back in 2013, shows a phone-like device with two screens that can be split apart and used separately or pushed together and used as a single screen. (Reader Charles Woelfel pointed out this video in our forums back in December, actually.)

As for the possibility that Microsoft might ship such a device, and to what end, I suppose there are a number of factors to consider.

The first and most obvious is whether this thing is a Windows 10 Mobile device or a full Windows 10 device. Given the app situation on Windows 10 Mobile and the implosion of Windows phone, I have to assume the latter.

And at that point, you have an interesting argument to make, that while the mobile (UWP) app situation on Windows 10 still isn’t great, the ability to run them on a bigger screen, on the fly, is interesting, as is the ability to run desktop apps.

And then there’s the timing. Looking back to the Surface Studio, we see that Microsoft received a patent for the design of that All-in-One PC in February 2016, and then announced the device in October 2016, a difference of 8 months. With this foldable screen phone design, Microsoft apparently received a patent in October 2016. (It’s not completely clear.) Add 8 months and we’re at June 2017.

Is this the long-rumored Surface Phone? A Surface Mobile device based on Windows 10 on ARM? We can only speculate. But for those stung by Microsoft’s mobile defeats, this application at least points to the fact that the software giant is still trying. And while they’re not the only company to experiment with foldable screens—Samsung is as well—they are one of the few companies with the design prowess to pull it off.

This is going to be an interesting year, methinks.


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