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If Microsoft can’t deploy Windows 10X, what should it do with Surface Neo?

Surface NeoSource: Zac Bowden | Windows headquarters

Recent reports suggest that Windows 10X won’t hit the market anytime soon. After Microsoft promised a shift in strategy to single-screen PCs in 2020, it has been delayed and now appears to have put the whole thing on hold. That means the Surface Neo is without an operating system, and that’s not a good thing.

We haven’t had an official update to Windows 10X or Surface Neo in over a year, which gives the impression that Microsoft doesn’t really know what to do with Windows 10X as Sun Valley for Windows 10 Desktop is in the works. To freshen up, Sun Valley is a UI project that aims to reinvigorate Windows desktop with a modern user interface, new features, and better performance across PC and tablet form factors.

Windows 10X was a promising idea; a modern version of Windows that is more secure, with faster Windows updates, a modern and fresh desktop user interface, and less space and performance requirements. On paper, it’s the best version of Windows yet, but in practice, it’s not the best version of “Windows” at all. Windows 10X is a version of Windows with no native support for most Windows applications.

Surface Neo double panes

Source: Microsoft

Windows applications consist mostly of legacy Win32 apps, with a small number of apps adopting Microsoft’s modern universal Windows 10 app platform. It is the universal app platform that runs “natively” on Windows 10X, with Win32 apps being delegated to run in a virtualized container. This is more secure, but it comes at the cost of app performance as the operating system essentially has to boot up the full Windows 10 in the background to get these apps to work.

Microsoft has been considering shipping Windows 10X without Win32 virtualization support at startup because running these apps on a low-end PC is unsustainable. But even then, we don’t know whether Microsoft will actually ship Windows 10X at this point. A lot has changed in the last year, and Sun Valley has established itself internally as the most important thing for Windows today.

Ship the Surface Neo with Windows 10 (not 10X)

Surface Neo

Source: Microsoft

So if Windows 10X doesn’t ship, what will Microsoft do with Surface Neo or the OEM partners who developed dual-screen / foldable PCs with Windows 10X in mind? I think the answer is obvious, and there is already a precedent for it; send with a different operating system. This is the story of Surface Duo, which was originally intended as a Windows device but shipped as an Android device.

I’m not saying Microsoft should ship Surface Neo with Android – that’s the last thing I want to see. Nobody wants Microsoft to make an Android PC / tablet hybrid like the Neo, as Android is notoriously bad at these form factors. Microsoft’s time would be better used to improve the tablet experience on Windows 10 instead.

With Sun Valley, I feel like Microsoft is taking touch and pen experiences seriously again. This is good news for a device like the Surface Neo that puts these types of input at the forefront. The only problem that currently keeps Surface Neo from shipping with Windows 10 is the static and old Windows user interface that doesn’t adapt to the many postures that Surface Neo is introducing.

Microsoft could fix this with Sun Valley by introducing a modern user interface that can adapt to the three main positions of the Surface Neo: book mode, laptop mode, and tablet mode. Windows 10 already supports dual screens, which with a few optimizations could harmonize well with accounting.

Windows 10 already has a tablet mode as well, which isn’t great, but assuming Sun Valley fixes the top complaints, this issue is partially resolved. But Windows 10 lacks a dedicated laptop mode for the Surface Neo and indeed other foldable PCs. This is one of the reasons Lenovo’s Yoga X1 Fold is not as good to use after it shipped with a full Windows that does not have a “laptop” mode.

Windows 10X

Source: Microsoft

Microsoft would have to introduce a mode that can detect when a foldable device is being used in the laptop pose. In Windows 10X, the operating system shifts the desktop user interface to one side and places the virtual keyboard and trackpad on the other. Interestingly, Microsoft has already introduced the Windows 10X touch keyboard on the desktop in the latest Insider builds, which even includes the “Wunderbar”.

A virtual trackpad is already integrated into the Windows desktop. All Microsoft has to do is combine these and properly orient them on one half of the display when a user initiates the laptop pose, and you have a working laptop mode for a device like the Surface Neo or the Lenovo X1 Fold . That simplifies the work required for this too much, but the installation for something like this already seems to be in place.

We will see

Microsoft employees with Surface Neo

Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows headquarters

All in all, I don’t know what Microsoft is going to do with Surface Neo. Perhaps Microsoft will ship it with Windows 10X at some point if the operating system is ever deemed ready, but the Surface Neo’s hardware is aging quickly, and the longer the company waits, the harder it will be to sell the Surface Neo (as advertised). People complained about the bezels back in 2019 and it will be years before delivery.

If Microsoft wants to salvage its hardware it needs to start asap, and that could happen if it only ships with the Sun Valley version of Windows 10. The other benefits of Windows Core OS (WCOS), like faster Windows updates, are things that Surface Neo simply has to miss out on, but that’s better than not being able to use the hardware at all.

I think (hope) that Windows 10 desktop with Sun Valley will be in a much better position to ship on a device like Surface Neo. But what are your thoughts? Should Microsoft ship it with Windows 10 desktop, sit on it until Windows 10X is done, or if Windows 10X never ships, cancel it entirely? Let us know in the comments.

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