Microsoft’s Surface Duo could start a new smartphone era


Microsoft Surface Duo

Microsoft spent five years working on a super-thin, dual-screen, hinged $1,399 phone to compete with Apple and Samsung. We got the behind-the-screen first look.

Last month was an odd sort of anniversary at Microsoft. In the summer of 2015, Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood and Wiz Khalifa’s See You Again topped the charts while speculation about the iPhone 6S was running wild. 

And that July, Microsoft announced one of its most spectacular fails — ever.

Satya Nadella, just a year into his tenure as Microsoft CEO, announced a $7.6 billion financial loss for Microsoft because of the company’s failed acquisition of phone giant Nokia, announced in 2013. Worse, 7,800 workers would lose their jobs. Nadella pretty much said they’d step back from the smartphone market in the near future

“We are moving from a strategy to grow a standalone phone business to a strategy to grow and create a vibrant Windows ecosystem including our first-party device family,” Nadella said in an email to Microsoft employees at the time. “I am committed to our first-party devices, including phones.”

Turns out that wasn’t the end of Microsoft’s phone ambitions. Around the time the company was writing off Nokia, a team inside Microsoft was hatching a plan to create a new device, one that would straddle what a phone and tablet could be and finally give Microsoft relevance in the half-trillion dollar global smartphone market, dominated by Samsung, Apple and Huawei.

The result is the Surface Duo, a $1,399 smartphone-ish device that weighs 8.8 ounces and features two 5.6-inch screens that come together to form a larger display with a hinged seam down the center. The design allows it to lay unfolded, flat on a table. You can also set it up like a tent, with the two screens facing outward. You can hold it open like a book, with the two screens facing inward. And you can close it like a clamshell. Microsoft’s approach runs counter to other foldable devices released this year, including the Galaxy Z Fold 2, which Samsung hasn’t revealed the price of yet. Samsung’s device is built around a single 7.6-inch interior screen that bends when closed.

“We just have a belief there’s a new category here,” Panos Panay, Microsoft’s chief product officer and Surface head, told me in an interview last week about Microsoft’s unique design. “We know how much more productive people are on two monitors.”

The other thing that makes the Surface Duo unusual is that it’s not powered by Microsoft’s Windows software for PCs, or its mobile variant that was discontinued in 2017. Instead, it runs on a modified version of Google’s Android, the software used by pretty much every smartphone or tablet that doesn’t come from Apple. Also notable is that the Surface Duo — unlike the Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 2 — doesn’t support next-generation 5G wireless technology. Microsoft said it opted to skip 5G as part of a trade-off to save battery life and allow the device to be only 4.8 millimeters thick when open (less than the iPad Pro’s 5.9 millimeters). When closed, the two screens stack on one another, making the Surface Duo’s thickness 9.9 millimeters — or less than half an inch.

“When we designed it, the intent was, ‘How do you make something so thin, beautiful, light and super elegant that when people pick it up they can feel that emotion in the product,”‘ Panay said.

Failing up

It’s easy to dismiss Microsoft — and many people do. The 45-year-old company is treated like the elder statesman of tech, which it is, and Nadella himself proudly admits his company isn’t cool. “You join here not to be cool, but to make others cool,” he told me in 2018. “You want to be cool by doing that empowerment … It’s the result that matters.”

So while it may not be a buzzy, hip company, it’s valued at $1.54 trillion, making it one of the top five companies in the world along with Amazon, Apple and Google parent Alphabet. Its Windows software powers more than 77% of the computers on the planet. And its Office productivity software is so ingrained in our culture that most of my friends don’t know the name of Google’s free competing apps — they’re just “the Google version of Excel” or “Google’s PowerPoint.” (They’re called Google Sheets and Slides, but even I had to look that up to be sure.)

Microsoft became such a powerful force that a judge determined the company violated antitrust rules in 2002. But the US government just slapped it on the wrist and let it continue being Microsoft. “Now the only way Microsoft can die is by suicide,” industry pundit Robert Cringely wrote after the verdict. 

You could argue it’s tried that too.  

Microsoft’s Surface Duo sits at the top of a mind-boggling pile of fails, with untold billions of dollars lost on acquisitions, distractions and dead-ends. 

Seeing Duo

When demoing a new device, Microsoft typically invites reporters to its campus in Redmond, Washington, to see an array of prototypes, testing equipment and labs in order to talk through the broader context about its newest gadget.

In 2019, when touring the company’s Human Factors Engineering Lab, I stumbled on an Xbox controller that was heavier than the standard ones I’d used. It was larger too, with buttons far enough apart I had to stretch my fingers to touch some of them. Carl Ledbetter, then senior director of design at the lab, said it’s meant to help his engineers better understand what it’s like for different people to hold the controller. In this case, he said, “You are 5 years old.”

The coronavirus pandemic made those fun moments impossible with the Surface Duo. 

This time, I’m peering through a webcam into Panay’s home, then one of Microsoft’s on-campus presentation rooms where the company assures me the employees are safe and following social distancing guidelines. We struggle with technical issues over the Microsoft Teams video chat software, and joke how if anyone should be able to make these conversations work effortlessly, it should be techies like us (Sigh.)

There were no rows of prototypes, but four members of Panay’s team took time to explain the process of developing the Surface Duo’s slimline, dual-screen design and the tech that made it possible.

Making it thinner meant pushing electronics to the bezels of the screens, for example. But then executives pushed to have those bezels shrunk as well. The two batteries built into Surface Duo are different sizes and behind the two different screens, so Microsoft had to build specialized battery management tech to make sure they’d charge, discharge and generally work together in ways we, the customers, wouldn’t notice. And they had to do that with wires snaking between the hinges.

How not to fail

Between phone calls with Microsoft, Stein and I discussed aspects of the device that stood out to us. He liked how the prototype Microsoft sent him felt in his hands. “I’ve been skeptical about dual-screen devices, and I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the Surface Duo,” he said. And yet, even holding a non-working unit, he said, “I’m already falling in love with the feel of the thing.”

I was intrigued by having two apps open on two different screens, something developers working on apps for my Apple iPad Pro just can’t seem to get right. I wondered whether the seam down the middle might be annoying, but I got used to the notch on my iPhone, and Galaxy Fold users tell me they hardly notice the crease on their foldable screen.

“It’s a specialized device that will find a group of people who will love it to death,” said Bob O’Donnell, an analyst at Technalysis Research. O’Donnell says he loves last year’s Samsung Galaxy Fold he’s been using, particularly because the larger screen makes it easier for him to do work, and offers a bigger area to see text.

He hasn’t touched the Surface Duo yet, but he’s worried the hinge-seam will annoy people where the single screen that’s folded on Samsung’s device wouldn’t. And not to mention, mobile device makers Kyocera and ZTE have both tried building dual-screen phones in the past, only to see them flop.

Still, O’Donnell’s ready to give Panay and his hinges the benefit of the doubt.

“Microsoft’s smart enough and thinking through enough that it will come up with methods of working that people find attractive,” he said.

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