The website Thomasnet.com says that “Hinges have been found in ancient societies in Africa, Asia, Europe and elsewhere,” dating back 5,500 years.
Historically, they were used to open doors, but as Harry McCracken wrote in a 2012 Technologizer post, in April, 1982, Grid Systems announced a portable computer “with a screen on one half of the interior, a keyboard on the other and a hinge in the middle. It was, in other words, the first computer with a clamshell case–or, to use a more common term, the first laptop.”
I didn’t have that first laptop, but I’ve owned many since the mid-80s, and frankly, I never gave much thought to the hinges until Lenovo introduced the Yoga in 2012. I’m not sure if that was the first computing device with a two-way hinge, but it was certainly the first popular one.
What was unique about the Yoga at the time was the ability for the screen to not just move back and forth to open and close the laptop, but its ability to go in the other direction, to turn the laptop into a tablet. Since then other PC companies have launched laptops with similar designs. My current laptop is an HP EliteBook 360, with a hinge that lets me use it as a traditional laptop, as a tablet or in “tent” formation.
“Clamshell” cellphones with hinges have been around since Motorola introduce the first flip phone in 1996.
I was reminded of the importance of hinges as I watched the stream of Microsoft’s announcement on Wednesday of its new Surface Neo tablet PC and its Surface Duo foldable phone.
The Surface Duo is a smart phone with two 5.6-inch displays separated by – you guessed it – a hinge. It’s somewhat similar to the Samsung Galaxy Fold except the Duo makes no attempt to hide the fact that it’s two screens separated by a hinge. The Duo has a gap in the middle when unfolded, while the Galaxy Fold tries to hide the gap while leaving a visible crease in the middle. One advantage of the Duo is – like foldable laptops – it can be positioned at any angle. The Galaxy Fold can also be used like a regular smart phone, albeit a bit thicker.
Almost as interesting as the phone’s form factor is its operating system. Microsoft used to have its own mobile operating system, but in 2017 the company announced it was abandoning Windows 10 Mobile and its line of smart phones. Despite years of effort and Microsoft’s 2014 acquisition of Nokia’s mobile division, the company just couldn’t compete with Apple and all the Google Android phone makers. In a case of “if you can’t beat em, join em,” Microsoft partnered with its arch-rival Google to create the Duo, which is its first Android phone.
“This product brings together the absolute best of Microsoft, and we’re partnering with Google to bring the absolute best of Android into one product,” said Microsoft Product Chief Panos Panay at the product announcement in New York on Wednesday. He called it “industry pushing technology and technology pushing possibilities.” Panay made a point about the product’s unique hinge. Microsoft has at least three patents for hinges for foldable devices.
A foldable phone entails more than just figuring out a way to connect two screens with a hinge. There is also a software challenge to make those two screens work together or separately. I don’t know what if Google played a role in customizing Android for the Duo, but I suppose Google and Microsoft can share credit for creating a phone that works regardless of whether it’s open so it can be used like a tablet, closed so it can be used like a regular phone or open, like a book. The software also enables you to have different apps on each screen so it’s like holding two phones that happen to be connected. And it can be used in clamshell mode with one screen functioning as a keyboard — like a pocket-sized PC.
The Surface Neo has a similar design to the Duo except that it’s much larger with two 9-inch displays that fold out to a 13.1-inch display. And it’s not an Android device. It runs Windows 10 X, a modified version of Windows for mobile devices.
Aside from its size and operating system, the Neo looks and functions much like the Duo with two screens that can be placed into any position. But because it’s more of a laptop-like device, it also has a magnetically attached keyboard that folds out from the back (another hinge of sorts) when needed.
Again, the magic is in both the hardware and software because the software adapts to how the device is folded and whether the keyboard is being used. This is a more sophisticated version of what’s already available on foldable Windows laptops. My HP EliteBook also changes modes if you fold the screen backwards.
Both the Duo and the Neo are slated to go on sale in time for next year’s holidays so Microsoft has plenty of time to work on both the hardware and software and – just as important – encourage developers to adapt their Android apps and Windows software to take advantage of dual screen devices.
We don’t know what these products will cost but I’m hoping that Microsoft doesn’t do what Samsung did by essentially doubling the cost compared to a single screen device. Samsung’s Galaxy fold costs nearly $2,000, which places it squarely in the category of a niche phone for those willing to spend twice as much on a device that’s still unproven.
If Microsoft follows Samsung’s lead and makes these devices too expensive, the vast majority of buyers will remain unhinged.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.
Published at Fri, 04 Oct 2019 11:00:37 +0000