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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Comments (32)

32 responses to “Microsoft Patents a Phone with Foldable Screen”

  1. 3183

    Whoever can make the Westworld phone/tablet first will have my dollars.

  2. 8243

    It's going to be very exciting to see if Microsoft pulls of this 3-in-1 tablet that can replace your smartphone concept. As Paul says, they have the means to do it and the UWP presents a unique strength for Redmond that competitors with similar concepts don't have.

    I wrote a piece back in November analyzing that 2009 (and other) future vision videos predicting a foldable device asking the question, "Did Microsoft give us a glimpse of its Surface "phone" vision, and like everyone here I think it really exciting to see it coming to past.

    Seeing what many of us have been envisioning as the next phase beyond the smartphone possibly coming soon is pretty cool. I've been arguing since January 2015 that MS would be positioning a device that would be a PC with telephony. Paul and Mary Jo have talked about the same on WW last year. Cool to see it happening! Good piece Paul.

    In reply to thespecificocean:


  3. 1829

    Thanks for the shoutout. :)

    As I stated on Twitter...having a foldable/detachable screen that can be your phone, and transform into a tablet is awesome. But to then have that "tablet" device also connect to a type cover and become a little laptop? That would blow minds. To have not only a 3 in one...but potentially a 4 in 1. A phone that can be a tablet, a tablet that can be a laptop, and a laptop that can connect wirelessly to a monitor and be a PC. That is the ultimate device as Satya Nadella stated. Only Microsoft has the OS that can do that transformation. Let's see if they are up to it.

    Interesting times we are in.

  4. 5394

    Flip phones are still popular in Japan. Maybe if they create a platform where developers are interested in writing apps for, they'll find a new audience.

    The upcoming Nintendo Switch is most exciting. Work off of that.

  5. 4841

    "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."

    I think you may be jumping the gun a bit believing there'll still be a very clear distinction between both SKUs when this device launches: the way I see it, to provide an ideal user experience it would have to use the mobile shell when in phone mode and the desktop/tablet one when in tablet mode. As such, could we truly not label this device a W10M one, in a way?

  6. 5496

    Lots of the stuff in the 2020 video will never happen. But lots of other stuff in it happen, just not in the way that was shown.

  7. 293

    I wonder if there is a connection to HoloLens here?  if you look at the video, when he pulls out the phone you start to see virtual items pop out over the real world.  Far fetched, but it would be certainly interesting to see that if you combine with hololens the information continues even beyond the extended screen.  

  8. 5592

    The time between applying for a patent and it being issued varies significantly, is unpredictable and really doesn't impact product development scheduling.

    For example, when I was at Microsoft Research, we applied for a patent on some unique parts of my architecture for a release of ChronoZoom in October 2011, released it in 2012 and were issued the patent in April 2013.

  9. 1872

    This would also fit into what Myerson had been saying when asked if they continue making phones: "We continue making devices". And also MS has already starting to bring cellular capabilities and related apps to PC.

  10. 2851

    In a few years' time, Apple will release something like this, it'll be the all the rage with the punters and commentators will marvel at another Apple "innovation".

  11. 8179

    Looking at patents - just reminds me if how the patent system is mostly broken. Take a sketch, some rough, foggy idea about  how maybe something should or could work - then sue people in the future who make something maybe, kind of similar.

  12. 1063

    Does the aspect ratio of 3:2 give it away as a surface product?


  13. 5510

    LOL...I have stated this time and time again. Computing technology is always changing and evolving. PC's are not declining and neither are tablets. Isn't it obvious here? PC's and tablets are converging. I said this before and I'll say it again, but this time, differently. The most popular form of computing is mobile, which is the ability to take and control all your data with you. That's why laptops are more popular than desktops, and why smartphones are more popular than laptops. From desktop computers, came the laptop. From smartphones came the tablet. Laptop and Tablets are clearly converging.

    The questions is this: Which platform will come out on top? Windows or Android/iOS?

    Isn't this obvious? Back when version 1 of Surface/Surface Pro came out, it floundered in sales and usability, while the iPad continued to prosper. Like I mentioned (about a month ago), you can see evidence of the market forming for these 2-in-1 forming when some of the most popular accessories for iPad and Android tablets were covers with built in (bluetooth) keyboards. LOL...if this hard to believe, go to Amazon and search for one and see the number of reviewers who purchased these items. As time went on, the Surface Pros finally improved and then we get the iPad Pro, Pixel Cs, Chromebooks running Android, etc...

    So if people are worrying about the health of the PC, stop it already. Like the Stages of Evolution, you can say Personal Computing technology is also evolving and worrying about the health of the (Windows) PC is ridiculous. Were we worried when the sale of CRT Monitors was fading? NO. There will always be a computing machine for all of us to play with. THAT, I can guarantee.

    • 8243

      In reply to Bats:

      Hi bats, your assessment is reminiscent of my own analysis. I've stated that Ultra-mobile PCs are a natural solution to declining PC market & natural evolution to plateauing smartphone market. In my "Smartphones are dead series" I talk about how smartphones in their current iteration are actually Mini tablet PCs and are no longer phones as they've taken on much of the features that were previously relagated to PCs like word processing, media editing, seamless internet browung and more.

      I've argued as our appetite for even more PC-like functionalty grows the current Apple and Google led iteration-focused smartphone paradigm is a dead end since it leads to only incremental hardware and some software improvements each year.

      My position is that Microsoft's approach with a Continuum-powered device that is a PC first, (approaching from a PC-centric perspective allows for greater range/freedom of creative thinking with form factor), that functions as a tablet, "becomes" a PC when docked and has telephony, meets in the middle of a declining PC market (as our behaviour has moved from desktop to tablets/phones/2-in-1s) and a plateauing smartphone market.

      Back in January 2015 I write a piece asking if a 7 inch Surface muni phablet was in the horizon- the tablet that can replace your smartphone. In November 2015 I wrote another piece, "Is Microsoft's anticipated Surface Phone a reimagined Surface Mini."

      In those pieces I think you and may share some common thoughts about the convergence of technologies. Paul and Mary Jo mentioned similar thoughts more recently last year.

      At any rate I think the industry is primed fir Microsoft's moment. Nothings certain, but I hope they execute. :-)

  14. 9201

    Samsung, Google, LG and now Microsoft.

  15. 2078

    I remember when the Microsoft Courier was announced way back when and wanted it so bad, but they killed it.  Hopefully, this Surface device will become a reality!

  16. 6501

    I would love to see Paul go a day without using the term "software giant." I don't think it's possible, though.

  17. 5496

    They didn't get the patent in October 2016. They filed it on October 16, 2014.

    I don't know where he's getting October 2016 from. Or is that the date you started drinking, and haven't stopped.

  18. 5234

    "A Surface Mobile device based on Windows 10 on ARM?"

    Certainly won't be this year.  Unless it's beta software.

    I wouldn't put that past them though.

  19. 442

    I bet MS is already licensing this to Samsung and others...

    I wonder what this will do to "thin" on smartphones?  And the battery life will probably suck anyway.

  20. 699

    Very interesting! It's also interesting to note that this info came out/was discovered/reported on right after Google and Samsung announced a similar device, a folding phone. I bet you we will see one (or at least get an announcement of one coming) by one of the big tech giants by year's end.

    Leo LaPorte also reported on one over the weekend in the works, on either his Tech Guy radio show or one of the others.

  21. 5476

    Patent fight! (Samsung and LG both "leaked" that foldable phones into tablets are coming last week)


    • 2592

      In reply to RealDarrenCohen:

      Every major phone maker has a patent for foldable phones, even Apple. The foldable smartphone will be the next "big" breakthrough for the form factor

  22. 548

    I thoroughly look forward to Microsoft making a lot of noise with this, then missing or screwing up all the obvious features, followed closely by Samsung and Google nearly perfecting it and dominating the market, only to have Apple follow up 5 years later claiming to have invented it :-)

  23. 10052

     I agree. This certainly evokes memories of the cancelled Courier tablet. I wonder what Mary Jo thinks of it...

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