I believe foldable devices are a big part of our tech future. Devices like the Samsung’s iteration of foldable smartphones like Galaxy Fold and Galaxy Z Flip have changed my use cases forever and it’s hard to imagine a future without them now. With that said, I’m OK with early form factors and use cases but recognize many aren’t. For them, foldable devices still have a long way to go in terms of breadth and depth. Depth in the refinement of the devices, especially in durability, and breadth in the use of a fold in other form factors. Windows 10X is Microsoft’s go at an operating system (OS) for foldable and dual-screen devices and likely form factors Microsoft isn’t even talking about yet. Windows 10X will be spread across many interesting form factors, but in the short term, it’ll be foldables and dual display devices. I will discuss the market Windows 10X is addressing, the differentiation it has with Windows 10, and the gap it is filling between these two converging markets.
The upcoming market
After years of seeing a bendable or curved display, the application of this technology is advancing. Companies like Samsung, Huawei, TCL, and Motorola have all revealed smartphones with a foldable screen with variance. Foldable displays will have a significant presence in the larger device category, so much so that I believe it will be as disruptive as the presence of the 2-in-1 laptop design. Along with foldables, dual-screen devices will follow, and both will require the right software. Much of this opinion comes from the market that is opening up for dual-screen and foldable devices.
The market for mobile devices is moving in two ways. Laptops are becoming more like smartphones in their mobile experience, and smartphones are becoming more like laptops in design, power, and input capabilities. An excellent example of this is the iPad and its updated OS to allow for keyboard and mouse input. While I see this as a strategic miss by Apple waiting so long, Apple did make the right decision in the end. More inputs in a device mean a more diverse and capable workflow. Another example of smartphones becoming more like laptops is Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra. The S20 Ultra has 16GB of memory and 512GB of upgradable storage. These are laptop level specs in a smartphone device, which is an incredible achievement that other smartphone companies will follow; Not because it’s needed, but because they can. Samsung has further improved its DeX experience, which enables its devices to go into a desktop experience, and it has even partnered with Microsoft to be in a Windows environment through USB.
An example of laptops becoming more like smartphones would be the overall concept of an always-connected PC (ACPC). ACPCs are a great example of merging the connectivity and battery life of a smartphone with the performance and capability of a PC. Another example is the evolution of 2-in-1 laptops. 2-in-1 laptops have done a great job of priming the market for foldable devices by having to overcome the awkwardness of not being the best laptop nor the best “tablet” but rather being both. The benefit of ACPCs and 2-in-1s is that the user gets the best of both worlds with a limiting factor.
The limiting factor comes from their primary inputs. For 2-in-1s and ACPCs the primary inputs are keyboard and mouse. That goes without saying that the primary function of the two are to be laptops first, tablets/mobility second. It is a differentiating factor when we look at it compared to dual-screen and foldable devices whose primary input is touch with keyboard and mouse being secondary.
Not only is this market trend true for consumer devices, but it is also true for business and enterprise workflows. Much of the enterprise workflow is moving towards mini PCs that connect to the back of a monitor and lightweight laptops like ACPCs, Intel Athena certified devices, and 2-in-1s that bring the office workflow out of the office.
The same can be said about the software. With the release of the first set of foldable and dual-screen devices, the Surface Neo and Lenovo Flexbook need an operating system that can rightly fit the needs of a hybrid mobile device.
Why standard Windows 10 is insufficient for foldables and dual-screen devices
Windows 10X puts Windows 10 in an interesting spot. Are the surface tablets not a testimony to the viability of Windows 10 as a tablet-capable OS? Windows 10 has a tablet mode, and it works. However, just as we saw that laptops don’t make for great smartphones and vice versa, Windows 10 doesn’t make for a great mobile operating system. Windows 10 hits a roadblock when a user tries to make touch a primary input over a mouse and keyboard. To understand why we need to go back to 2012.
Windows 10 tablet mode is the product of what Microsoft wanted to implement with Windows RT. For those who don’t remember Windows RT, it is Mircosoft’s first go at a tablet OS in 2012. It came when tablets where a new concept and held to the live tiles from Windows mobile. It had one flaw that separated it from the classic Windows – the reliance on app development for the Microsoft Store. A power play that wasn’t favorable for desktop apps and apps that were supported on Windows 7. Windows RT later became the shell of Windows 10 tablet mode, and touch became a secondary input, even for apps in tablet mode.
To continue, Windows 10 is only suitable for one mode, tablet mode. Dual screen and foldable devices need mode optimization as much as they need app optimization. Both require the changing of inputs based on the changing of modes. For example, in the Neo, dual-screen will have touch as the primary input, but when the keyboard is flipped, the keyboard becomes the primary input, and apps are optimized for the keyboard the same as the user experience. More modes mean more use cases, and more use cases involve more productivity in a mobile experience. Windows 10 lacks the mobile experience.
Bridging the gap
Windows 10X is the Windows RT and Windows mobile concept kept alive eight years later. There are some key changes that I believe will make the operating system successful in the wake of dual-screen and foldable devices.
Windows 10X cleans up the look and feel by getting rid of the live tiles. As I mentioned before, live tiles translate from the Windows mobile. For Windows 10X, we get more of an Android look and feel with updated native apps. There is still a hint of Windows RT with the taskbar and overall concept, but it takes what Android has learned in terms of OS design rather than Windows mobile.
Microsoft released the Windows 10X developer kit a year in advance. This tells me Microsoft is taking app optimization for its new software seriously. There are many hurdles developers are going to face when it comes to optimizing apps for dual-screen and foldable devices. The gap between the displays and determining where the fold is for different devices will be difficult. It reminds me of what Android goes through with its diverse number of devices with different screen sizes and hardware. Windows 10X, like Android, will have to be broad enough to be on various devices and still be able to stick to its dual-screen and foldable experience.
Windows 10X can run legacy apps alongside native apps. It is a big deal and a feature that Windows RT was missing. Legacy apps like WIN32, Universal Windows Apps (UWP), progressive web apps (WPA) are still present in this form of Windows. These special legacy apps run in a Windows container that is separate from the Windows 10X operating system and separate from the native apps. This separation limits legacy apps to any admin controls but improves on the security of the device.
Just as foldables and dual-screen devices require an OS like Windows 10X, Windows 10X will create market growth for these kinds of devices. I think it has the right ingredients to make for a successful OS, and I believe Microsoft is taking the right steps to ensure the success of the OS. A developer kit’s early release will help with bringing the Microsoft store to life with the app and mode optimization it needs.
Windows 10X is still in the works, and so far, it is a significant improvement to what Microsoft was doing with Windows RT. The success of Windows 10X is going to be in the hands of dual-screen devices, and others like it.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy co-op Jacob Freyman contributed to this article.