Surface Duo: Opening a New Chapter

Microsoft’s $1,399 Surface Duo will arrive in September

Ten months have passed since Microsoft announced the Surface Duo, but its dual-screen, Android-based vision for mobile computing is no less bold. The Surface Duo is not a phone, although it has a SIM card and fits comfortably in your hand. It’s not a tablet or laptop, but it’s got a hinge and enables windowing and multitasking. It also costs more than most phones or laptops, at a starting price of $1,399, and yet it lacks features such as 5G and RFID.

All these observations miss the point, however. Surface Duo’s uncomfortable position in this no man’s land between smartphone, tablet and notebook is exactly why Microsoft is addressing the category. This is where it believes the future of computing lies and where it sees significant, long-term potential.

Others have previously made attempts to zoom in on this segment, long before the first crop of devices with foldable displays arrived. Nokia’s Communicator and Intel’s MID platform are just two examples. However, no device has successfully filled the gap. Tablets tried, but smartphones largely took their place with screen sizes of less than six inches, and the fixed form factor meant productivity and uses were compromised.

This inevitably raises the question of whether a need actually exists for this innovation. If devices have struggled to span a perceived “gap”, what makes Microsoft confident that there’s a need now? It’s a fair question, but I believe two ingredients have been missing that Microsoft is capable of addressing.

The first is hardware. Designing a slim product that unfolds to reveal a large display — 8.3 inches in the Surface Duo’s case — is incredibly difficult, particularly while maintaining thermal and battery performance. Samsung, Huawei and others have decided to start the journey using flexible displays, but Microsoft has opted for two panels with a custom pixel stack and a 360-degree hinge. Coupled with Microsoft’s own digitizer algorithm, the device tracks a finger or pen across the screens, making it seem like one panel when unfolded. Given the challenges of durability and thinness with foldable designs, this is a wise move by the Surface team. Battery-efficient Arm-based processors also now offer the horsepower within a workable thermal envelop to enable such devices. Qualcomm is proving to be a winner of Microsoft’s expanding vision for Surface, with the Surface Duo featuring a Snapdragon 855 platform optimized for dual screens.

The second ingredient is services. The Surface Duo fits nicely with Microsoft’s productivity story and this is the clear focus of the device, as Microsoft 365 apps are all optimized to make the most of the dual displays. This means both productivity software and hardware are tightly integrated, which is a big part of the company’s vision for Surface, and I expect it will become increasingly convincing. In contrast to its previous efforts in the mobile space, Microsoft’s commitment to its software assets isn’t weakened by a broader lack of apps. Panos Panay, chief product officer of Windows and devices, was very clear that the reason Microsoft chose Android was apps. Regardless of the company’s strength in the productivity market, a broader line-up of apps is table stakes on a mobile device.

Still, this is the start of a journey for Microsoft. The first generation of the Surface Duo will inevitably have limited appeal — it’s a device for affluent Surface fans and those looking for a productivity-orientated device that supports the full suite of Microsoft apps they use elsewhere. We wrote in a blog when the device was first announced that “Microsoft’s strategy is clear: anticipate where the puck is moving, rather than chase the next shift in computing. In this respect, Surface Duo won’t be an overnight success, but it’s an important platform for experimentation” (see Surface Noise). We stand by that analysis today. The first Surface product was a compromised device in many ways, but it was refined over time to become the successful product it is today.

This new category will inevitably go through a similar process. More apps will be optimized for dual displays. We can expect the hardware to improve and 5G to become a feature despite the challenge, particularly with millimetre wave, of integrating the technology into a small design. The question of whether customers and distribution channels should think of the Surface Duo as a phone will be answered or rendered irrelevant. Who remembers the debate about whether Surface was a tablet or a notebook? Does anyone care today? We can also expect Android to improve as a result, adding more hooks and capabilities for developers.

The Surface Duo is a brave step that demanded difficult choices that Microsoft wouldn’t have contemplated before Satya Nadella became CEO. It won’t be a blockbuster device, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s a beginning. Just don’t call it a phone.

The Surface Duo will be released on 10 September 2020. It will be available in the US only from the Microsoft Store, AT&T and BestBuy, for use on AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon networks.