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Has Microsoft seen the future of PCs, phones and tablets with its stackable ‘modular computing device’?’

Microsoft has patented what it calls a “modular computing device”, which includes the use of stackable components to allow for simpler PC upgrade processes.

The patent, filed on 7 July 2015 but only surfacing in published form late last week, features a “display device physically and communicatively coupled to the housing via a hinge, and one or more display hardware elements disposed within the housing that are configured to output a display for display by the display device”.

The filing also describes a “computing modular component” also in a housing connected to the display component, as a well as a “processing system” and memory also “disposed within the housing”.

The upshot of all this, basically, is a Lego-style snap-together PC, taking the existing concepts of computers that can be upgraded by a user, but doing away with the need to open anything up.

Such a move isn’t anything new, to say the least – Intel has worked a similar line with its NUC (Next Unit of Computing) mini PC range for several years now. While not stackable with single, enclosed units like Microsoft’s concept, the NUC features small, laptop-style components that simply snap onto the main board with minimal use of screwdrivers or transferable skills.

Gaming PC firm Razer also introduced a concept very similar to Microsoft’s back in 2014 with Project Christine – a stackable, component-based idea based on units slotting into a central vertical frame.

Microsoft, however, may be taking the concept even further than simply desktop PCs, as it goes on to mention that “a computing device may be configured as a computer that is capable of communicating over the network, such as a desktop computer, a mobile station, an entertainment appliance, a set-top box communicatively coupled to a display device, a wireless phone, a game console, and so forth.”

In which case, says Microsoft, devices built on the technology may “range from full resource devices with substantial memory and processor resources (e.g. personal computers, game consoles) to a low-resource device with limited memory and/or processing resources”.

This paragraph goes on to cite “traditional set-top boxes and hand-held game consoles”. There is also talk of gesture-based input as an option.

While patent applications can often be seen as catch-all solutions to safeguard a wider execution of an initially sound concept, this filing can be seen as an attempt by Microsoft to bring the hardware landscape into line with concepts such as Universal Apps (which allows applications that share APIs to bridge different hardware and Windows platforms yet retain cross-functionality) and Continuum (plugging a Windows Phone into a computer monitor and allowing “desktop functionality”).

While it seems unlikely we’ll be breaking off a couple of parts of a desktop PC and leaving the house with an instant smartphone any time soon, there’s a definite sense that Microsoft is looking at the future of hardware in the right way as the market continues to fracture and deteriorate.

With PC market sales reportedly down by 8.3 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2015 and tablet sales reported to be slowing too, it seems fairly clear that a proliferation of devices – often without solid use cases – is beginning to cause the devices market to stagnate.

Reinterpreting the endpoint as a single device that can be rebuilt at a user’s whim is enticingly organic. Even if such a concept is only a positive interpretation of what could easily be a simple legal safeguard by Microsoft, it’s certainly a step in the right direction for a devices market currently reaching the desperate limits of innovation.

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