Expect several Surface Phones, but not anytime soon

The first non-Lumia flagship phones may not arrive until 2017 as Microsoft puts its phone plans on ice.

If Microsoft’s last round of flagship Windows phones didn’t do anything for you, you may have to wait a while for the next wave.

Citing unnamed sources, Windows Central's Daniel Rubino—who has a good track record with early Windows news—claims that Microsoft is working on up to three “Surface phones.” Details are scarce, but the apparent plan is to offer one value phone for consumers, one high-end phone for enthusiasts, and one business-class phone. This echoes a strategy laid out last year by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, in which he described the company’s phones as falling into three distinct categories.

However, the Surface phones may not launch until the spring 2017 timeframe, as Microsoft gives other vendors such as HP, Alcatel, and Acer more breathing room to launch their own Windows 10 Mobile handsets, Windows Central reports. In the meantime, Microsoft has reportedly killed off unreleased Lumia phones, and it sounds like last year’s Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL and this year's budget-friendly Lumia 650 were the last phones Microsoft will release under the Lumia brand name.

The idea that Microsoft won’t put out its own Windows phones this year makes sense, given the company’s recent comments on its underdog operating system. Following the Build developers conference last week, during which Windows 10 Mobile was a complete no-show, Windows boss Terry Myerson told The Verge that phones are “an important part of our family but not the tip of the spear” in 2016.

For now, Microsoft is focusing on building up Universal Windows Platform apps on other devices, such as PCs, Xbox consoles, and HoloLens, the whole point being to enable easy app development across device types. The hope may be that if Microsoft can build a thriving UWP app ecosystem, and comes back with strong smartphone hardware in 2017, it may finally have some success in getting developers to make Windows phone apps.

Why this matters: Rumors of a Surface-branded phone started swirling since even before Microsoft acquired Nokia’s phone business in 2013, and the product line seems inevitable now that Microsoft has dismantled the Lumia brand. But without an app ecosystem, any new hardware efforts will continue to fall flat. That’s tough for however many Windows phone enthusiasts are left, but it does explain why new Surface phones may be hanging in limbo until next year.

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Jared Newman

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