Does Microsoft Want to Put Solar Panels on the Surface Pro?

Caroline Delbert
Photo credit: Microsoft

From Popular Mechanics

  • Microsoft has patented a keyboard cover with a built-in solar panel.
  • Some industry experts guess this is a way to extend battery life and add value to Surface devices.
  • A real device could be years down the road, but a patent can slow competitors' development.

Microsoft has filed a patent for a solar panel built into the cover for a device. The company’s application confirms it’s for a Surface Pro-style of device, where the cover includes a keyboard and, in this case, solar panels as well. Besides the saleable environmental qualities of a solar-powered device accessory like this, Microsoft has always made a lot of money off of Surface peripherals like interchangeable covers.

Microsoft sells supplemental “type covers”—the now-familiar term for the combination cover and keyboard sold for Surface tablets since the beginning—for prices that begin at $130. Other branded accessories include a $150 stylus, $80 wireless mouse, and $250 wireless headphones. Microsoft’s demographics might be just right for a premium solar-powered keyboard cover sometime in the future. The company filed the patent in 2018, but it just became public.

The most efficient way to feed solar panels is with direct, full sunlight, which isn’t typically the environment in which someone wants to use a tablet or computer. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that regular outdoor conditions are the intention here—what, you’ll leave your $900 Surface or even its likely $200+ type cover outside in the weather? But the panels can also charge (less efficiently) from indirect sunlight or even indoor light like incandescent or LED bulbs.

Industry experts quoted in Tech Xplore wonder if the solar type cover is a way to extend the battery life of the Surface family of devices, and it’s true that solar panels are a lot more efficient than they ever have been. But the Surface, which emerged as an aspiring iPad killer and uses very light weight and “elegance” as its selling points, is unlikely to attach a clunky solar device to anything. A real application of the patent is likely years down the road.

The Best Surface Gear

The iPad also has its own robust category of keyboard cases now. In terms of direct competition, the Surface product line is targeting the iPad Pro by competing for real performance instead of just portability and touchscreen novelty—and Apple in turn adopted the keyboard case model because of the Surface, not just the Surface’s included keyboard, but the thriving secondary market for even more and better keyboard covers.

This patent could be Microsoft’s preemptive claim to the solar keyboard cover market. Surface units come with keyboards, which you can choose to upgrade or replace for more money. Solar could entice even stubborn users of the included keyboard. And when the cheapest iPad costs just $330, but the add-on keyboard costs $160, the Surface solar keyboard could boost how much you spend on a complete setup from the beginning.

By saving energy, hypothetically extending battery life, and jamming Apple out of the first batch of solar tablet keyboards, Microsoft may have written its own check in patenting the solar-panel type cover.

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