Microsoft's latest hardware project could involve a modular computer with stackable components, as indicated by a new patent.
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It seems Microsoft is brainstorming a modular PC. The company recently published a patent application for a "modular computing device," which would consist of separate pieces that could be swapped out for upgrades and customization. It initially applied for the patent in July 2015.
The range and functionality of computer hardware is continuously increasing, with faster processors and greater memories becoming available. Normally, consumers have to purchase a new PC to access these features.
A modular design would make PC advancements more accessible to everyday consumers, who would be able to upgrade their devices for lower cost.
(Image: US Patent & Trademark Office)
The computer would be made of several hardware components stacked together to create a functional PC. If one piece stopped working or needed an upgrade, it would be simple to purchase and install a specific replacement part, rather than buy a new computer.
Microsoft's modular design would include a display connected to the computer via a hinge. Some of the hardware parts, including a graphics card, removable battery, and processor, would be stacked in pieces attached magnetically or by mechanical latches.
The patent application explains how accessory modules could enable gesture recognition for user input. Others could serve as output devices for speakers or holographic projections, indicating the PC's potential compatibility with HoloLens.
While it's already possible for PC owners to replace components of their modern computers, it's difficult to successfully swap hardware without extensive knowledge of how PCs work.
Microsoft indicates this device would be easy for everyday consumers to use. It describes how "the computing device may be altered and changed readily by a user in an intuitive manner without requiring that person have detailed knowledge of the hardware."
It seems this project would fall under the management of the Surface team. Tim Escolin, one of the patent's authors, is a senior industrial designer for the Surface devices and accessories division, as noted by VentureBeat in the first report on Microsoft's patent update.
Microsoft's PC design is a concept reminiscent of Google's Project Ara, a modular smartphone platform designed to let users create a phone that suits their preferences. Google delayed the launch of Project Ara in August 2015 with the promise it will debut later this year.
Other companies have also explored the potential for modular computers. In Sept. 2015, Acer debuted the modular Revo Build Mini PC, which allows consumers to customize their device with "blocks."
Modular PC Project Christine from gaming PC manufacturer Razer was demonstrated with help from Microsoft at CES 2014. Project Christine generated hype for its design, but never made it to a consumer audience.
A patent application is a far cry from a finished product, and this news doesn't necessarily guarantee Microsoft will debut a modular computer in the coming years. However, the launch of Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book are clear indicators the company is committed to competing in the hardware space.
What are your thoughts on the concept of a modular PC? Is this something you would be willing to try? Where are the potential problems for an idea like this?
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Kelly Sheridan is Associate Editor at Dark Reading. She started her career in business tech journalism at Insurance & Technology and most recently reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft and business IT. Sheridan earned her BA at Villanova University. View Full Bio
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