Surface Noise

Microsoft’s dual-screen Android phone was a surprise

Last Wednesday, at an event devoted to its range of Surface devices, Microsoft teased a new, dual-screen Android smartphone called the Surface Duo. Although Microsoft’s event in New York was meant to showcase updates to its existing product line, the big surprise was when the company showed off working concepts of dual-screen devices called Surface Neo and Surface Duo. Surface Neo runs Windows, and despite its unusual form factor, it’s a Microsoft machine. But the Android-powered Surface Duo is something out of the ordinary.

Microsoft described the Surface Duo as a “new category” of device, something beyond a smartphone. The product can make phone calls and run Android apps from the Google Play store, which means that Microsoft is relying on a third-party ecosystem. Surface Duo is more of a tablet, with two side-by-side displays that measure 5.6 inches each.

The dual-screen design of the Surface Duo is notable, but it’s not something new. Device makers including LG, Nintendo and ZTE have brought out devices with two displays in an attempt to optimize the experience, and generate attention.

Microsoft has chosen not to implement foldable-screen components, perhaps because of the beta feel of the technology. While Samsung is soldiering through this new display technology with the Galaxy Fold, an impressive and well received device, Microsoft is probably waiting for the technology to mature. We expect more foldables to be commercialized over the coming months, testing consumer interest and leading to improvements down the road. Microsoft’s decision to go with dual screens has a big advantage when it comes to cost and durability.

But it’s the choice of Android that makes the development most intriguing. Unsurprisingly, it was this that caught the attention of the media in the wake of the event. However, under CEO Satya Nadella the decision shouldn’t come as a major surprise. Moves to embrace open-source software coupled with efforts to deliver Microsoft apps and services across a wide range of platforms and devices means this is less of a shock than it would have been five years ago.

Microsoft’s re-entry into the smartphone market has come at a time when Samsung and Apple are facing near-total market penetration and slowing sales. But we take Microsoft at face value when it calls the Surface Duo a new category. The company from Redmond is looking to enter the market for thin clients as 5G enables a new generation of computing services

Furthermore, we look at the recent split of iOS into a sub-platform Apple calls iPadOS, an indication that the lines between notebook, tablet and smartphone are becoming hazier than ever. The introduction of foldables and dual-screen devices will bring yet more options on the computing continuum between smartphones and PCs. 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.

With over a year to go until the launch of the Surface Duo in the fourth quarter of 2020, Microsoft has time to perfect the device and assess its market potential. There are still unanswered questions about price and specifications, but the Surface Duo marks an interesting turning point for both the company and the industry.

Our full analysis of this and several other announcements from Microsoft’s event is available on CCS Insight Connect.