Disclosure: Most of the companies mentioned are clients of the author.
There have been a series of potentially market-changing announcements this month (and some haven’t happened yet). The two already public are Intel’s blended CPU/GPU called Tiger Lake, which could change the performance/battery life dynamic for mobile PCs, and the Microsoft Surface Duo, which is attempting to displace smartphones with a more productivity-oriented alternative.
There’s been no update on the Microsoft Surface Neo, but it’s the first product I know of that is expected to get the Tiger Lake combo, and it should be similar to the Duo – just larger. (And it may swap phone capabilities for similar functions via Teams and Skype.)
I think it is past time for a disruptive change to the mobile PC and smartphone ecosystems, so let’s explore that prospect this week. Because change is clearly in the wind.
How we got here
The origin of the now-current clamshell laptop design pretty much goes back to the IBM PC Company, which made that design famous with their Thinkpad 775CD. (Lenovo now owns that brand and line.) It was meant to blend low performing power-hungry processors and wired network capability into something with battery life measured in minutes and performance that would make the slowest PC today seem blindingly fast then. The screen size was better than what preceded it, and given that 15-in. monitors were standard, the size disparity between laptops and desktops wasn’t that great. But Thinkpads were wicked expensive, and without wireless connectivity, most buyers couldn’t justify the cost; sales were a fraction of the overall PC market.
Since then, fast wireless has arrived, performance has come up sharply (as has battery life) and performance deltas between desktop computers and laptops are generally more connected to the GPU – where Intel has historically underperformed – not the CPU. The hardware is thinner, but that old clamshell design remains.
Smartphones, ironically, also first came from IBM; it was called the Simon. It was huge, expensive and had limited performance. Few saw it, few bought it. The smartphones that sold at volume had keyboards and came from Palm, RIM (Blackberry) and Microsoft. In a way, they were like little notebooks, but most didn’t fold, and the focus was business, not entertainment. Both Microsoft and Palm had internal groups that wanted to create consumer smartphones like the iPhone. But those efforts were killed, ironically, because top executives at both firms didn’t think there was a market for them.
Apple in 2007 unveiled a focused consumer device, leveraged its iPod market dominance, and took over the market with an iPod-like phone. Highlighting a surprising lack of strategic planning, the old leaders of the smartphone market crowned the iPhone the leader. They followed by exiting the business (Microsoft, RIM) or being sold for parts (Palm).
These disruptive changes happened before we had “the cloud” and before the massive advances in wireless connectivity, the latest being Wi-Fi 6 and 5G. Now, decades later, I think the market is ready for another disruptive change.
The Surface Duo/Neo
At the heart of both of Microsoft’s platforms is a focus on productivity, not entertainment. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have entertainment features. Both will play games and show movies. (And the Duo, due to its dual-screen design and prop-ability, may be better than the current iPhone-led design language.)
The Duo uses a version of Qualcomm’s latest high-performance processor, the Snapdragon 850; the Neo uses a custom version of Intel’s most mobile part, the upcoming Tiger Lake. Both are blended CPU/GPU platforms and have enhanced memory management and performance-per-watt advantages over prior designs. The result should be a better balance between performance and energy use.
Both designs are twin-screen and focused on improving productivity. This focus is particularly useful on a collaboration product like Microsoft Teams where you want to see who you are remotely talking to and need to see what they’re presenting.
Though the Duo is showing up first, it has the opportunity to be the most disruptive because, in a cloud-connected world, you don’t need the performance bump of the Neo. With a future, high-resolution head-mounted display, you may not need the Neo’s extra screen real estate either. Over time, I’d expect the Duo, with an Azure back end and a future head-mounted display, to overtake most of the Neo’s use cases. Until then, both form factors will address viable user needs – the Duo for those needing portability, the Neo for a more traditional PC set of requirements.
Tiger Lake vs. Snapdragon 850
One of the exciting battles will be between Tiger Lake and its successors and Snapdragon 850 and its successors. Both represent the best of what their respective companies can offer. Qualcomm’s sustaining advantage will likely be battery life and portability. Intel’s will be performance and synergy with its cloud hardware offerings as the cloud becomes where everyone runs apps.
The Snapdragon 850 is in the market as the highest performing part for a smartphone; Tiger Lake is due out shortly as the most mobile-forward product for notebooks Intel has ever created. Where Tiger Lake will stand out is in performance. That said, I would expect Snapdragon to continue to lead in full battery life. The two platforms will rarely be used in the same form factor, but when they are, the comparative metric will be performance per watt.
This dynamic will make the Surface Duo and Neo an entertaining comparative showcase: each, while similar, will be optimized for its own technology architecture, while having a similar form factor and running similar, if not identical, apps. Granted, the Duo will rely on Android with a Microsoft front end while the Neo will be more of a modified Windows pure-play. This will also showcase the difference between the new Microsoft/Google partnership and the old, more monolithic Microsoft approach.
How both products do relative to each other could be an indicator of the future for both Qualcomm and Intel, and a hybrid Android/Windows and Windows pure play.
While we wait for the Neo’s formal coming-out party, I think the dynamic between it and the Surface Duo is potentially far more predictive than most realize. Both showcase innovation in a way that suggests a future blending of the PC and the smartphone, particularly as we increasingly consider virtual desktop solutions that run in the Cloud. Multiple screens are a precursor to the workable head-mounted displays, and both the number and size of screens, not to mention the balance between mobility and performance, are all in play.
How these two products are received could well define not only the future of Snapdragon and Intel’s new Hybrid-Core technology, but also begin our pivot from traditional laptop and smartphone form factors to something that better represents the post-pandemic world.
In short, change is in the wind; the nature of that change, however, is TBD.
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