Dual-screen devices have never made much sense to me, as far as computing is concerned, but it’s clear that more than one company is preparing to bring these kinds of products to market. The latest news from Microsoft suggests that we’re going to see more of these products in the future — the company has just been granted another patent on dual-screen devices, and it’s not the only company applying for them.
Microsoft’s latest patent concerns an application for a dual-screen device that uses a single flexible display. The description states:
A flexible display can be secured to both the first and second portions. The hinge assembly can provide several features that facilitate the use of a single flexible display. During rotation of the first and second portions, the hinge assembly can change the length of the device that lies beneath the flexible display to reduce stresses imparted on the flexible display. This aspect can be achieved with a cord that connects the first portion to the hinge assembly. A length of a pathway of the cord can change during the rotation so that the cord draws the first portion toward the hinge assembly and/or allows the first portion to be biased away from the hinge assembly depending on the orientation.
Many of the patent drawings are extremely detailed examples of how such hinge joints would fold together and function, like so:
There’s a great deal of discussion about how to interface the hinge design with the mechanics of an OLED panel. In and of itself, it’s just further evidence that the company has been working on dual-screen devices. We’ve known that for a while, with rumors about both Centaurus and a newer dual-screen Surface device that could pop up at Microsoft’s unveil event. But MS isn’t the only company getting in on dual-screen patents. News surfaced earlier this month of a Dell patent on these types of devices as well. Lenovo has demoed its ThinkPad X1 Foldable PC.
Not all of these devices are exactly the same, to be sure. Some of them, like Lenovo’s, have a folding screen — similar to the folding phone prototypes that both Samsung and Huawei were already supposed to have launched. Some of them, like Microsoft’s patents and Dell’s, describe a device with multiple displays that fold, but not a so-called “foldable PC.”
Just because companies are patenting technology doesn’t necessarily mean they intend to bring devices to market. It’s not unusual for companies to engage in so-called “defensive” patenting, in which they preemptively file for patents to ensure other companies can’t sue them, or to have a war chest of competing licensable patents in the event that they find themselves in a patent licensing war. Dig around a bit, and you’ll find plenty of tech stories discussing how companies buy other firms solely for their patents.
But this feels different. It’s one thing for companies to strategically position themselves with regard to patents in an area like mobile, which is heavily patent-encumbered to start with. Dell, Microsoft, and other firms are taking out patents on specific types of hinge designs and other facets of construction — the sort of protection you’d want if you invested in a great deal of money to build concrete products. As Mehedi Hassan notes, the author of this specific patent has written several similar documents and the design drawings are incredibly detailed. This isn’t a vague idea Microsoft is trying to patent in order to corner the market on a broad class of devices, it’s obviously a specific design intended for a particular product.
Intel Honeycomb Glacier prototype.
The interesting dual-screen devices we’ve seen thus far have been desktop-replacement-style laptops, with a secondary screen used for displaying information during gaming. Dual-screen devices that could be used as books or with a second display serving partly as a keyboard have been shown, but there have always been more questions than answers regarding UI and how software would (or more likely, wouldn’t) be updated to take advantage of this functionality.
Either an awful lot of companies are pouring funds into secret dual-panel devices they intend to start shipping over the next 12-18 months, or we’re seeing the results of a lot of skunkworks R&D that may ultimately come to naught. It wouldn’t be the first time that a company dumped months or years of effort into products that never came to market, but the buzz around folding (or foldable PCs) is hovering in that liminal space between “Definitely a major product trend,” and “Testing the waters to see if there’s a market.” Companies may be hoping that new form factors would rejuvenate the PC market, which is generally expected to continue declining for the next few years. High-end boutique systems and 2-in-1s have been some of the only bright spots in the space, so it makes sense that companies would be searching for profitable niches that might ignite consumer interest.
Feature Image: Conception of what Microsoft’s never-launched “Andromeda” device might have looked like, by Thurrott.com