Surface Duo: Windowing Is The New Lapability

on August 12, 2020

Yesterday I participated in a press and analyst briefing during which Panos Panay, Chief Product Officer, Windows + Devices and the Surface team spent about an hour going over the Surface Duo, its specs, some key features, but most importantly, in my mind, the thought process that brought the team to this device. We first saw the Surface Duo back in October 2019 during the annual Fall Surface event. At the time, we also saw Surface Neo and together, these two products were clearly positioned as the future of productivity.

The big difference between the two devices, aside from size, is that they run two different operating systems: Duo runs Android while Neo, once it ships in 2021, will be running Windows 10X.  Panay positioned Surface Duo as the combination of the “Microsoft you love and the Android, you know.” Users might not be quite thinking about Microsoft in terms of love. Still, there is no question that when it comes to productivity, the Microsoft + Android combo is what the vast majority of US users consider their reality.

The Journey

Panay took us on a Surface journey to remind us of what the team set out to achieve when they brought to market the first Surface and the journey that they have been on since then. This was not about nostalgia; it was an essential reminder of the drivers behind a product that came to inspire a long list of devices both in the Windows and Apple camps. I genuinely believe Surface Duo is the start of a new journey, or maybe it is the next leg of the same journey.

The original Surface was about creating a more dynamic device that brought together a PC and a tablet so that a more stationary workflow could seamlessly blend into a more mobile one and vice versa. With Surface Duo, we have a product that empowers new workflows on the go thanks to the different posture the hardware allows for, but also thanks to the software. Surface Duo does this while having a strong dotted line to the PC that sits on your desk or, at the moment, more likely, on your kitchen table.  The more I listened to Panay talk about Surface Duo, the more it was clear to me that, much like our smartphones do, the power this device has is not limited to when we are on the go. The additional benefit of Surface Duo is that it bridges two ecosystems by bringing together the apps that you depend on your phone and the apps that you use every day on your PC. From what I saw from the demos, the team made a real effort in staying true to the Android experience as much as they possibly could while anchoring some core Microsoft experiences.

The Phone

I was struck by one sentence in the blog published by Panos Panay: “So, with Surface Duo, we did not focus our energy on the places the industry is already advancing – processors and networks will get faster, and cameras will get better with or without us.” This makes it quite clear to me that Panay did not set out to launch the best smartphone in the market. Had he done so, clearly, networks, cameras and processors would have been the main focus as these, and maybe screen size and battery, are the battlefields of smartphone innovation.

As I wrote back in October, it would be a real shame if we just measured Surface Duo against traditional smartphones and decided that it wasn’t worth the investment because of what might be perceived like hardware shortcomings such as the camera system, or the lack of 5G support. The team set out to launch the best productivity device for users who spend most of their day in Microsoft 365 apps. Also, users who want a Surface product because they stand for high-quality hardware and attention to detail. A product with a design centered around enabling you to do your best work by freeing you from hardware constraint.

Staying true to the mission of delivering the best hardware for the best workflow, not just the best hardware, requires a certain degree of discipline in deciding what you add and you don’t. With Surface Duo, I am sure most people will concentrate on why Microsoft opted for a dual-screen rather than a foldable one. This question was one of the most asked after the unveiling last year and it has probably become more top of mind after Samsung’s sneak peek of the Galaxy Z Fold 2 last week. Microsoft reiterated the neurological benefits that come from using two windows compare to one larger screen. You can buy into this argument or not. Still, the reality is that a foldable form factor wouldn’t have allowed for the slim design the Surface Duo sports, nor would users have been able to use a pen, a key ingredient in many Surface users’ workflows.

I also wonder if windowing will drive users to discover new workflows rather than adapting how they do things on their phone or their PCs. Having a larger screen usually just makes people think about doing things in the same way but using more space to do so. Some of the ‘enlightened” apps the Surface Teams showed during the briefing from Outlook to Kindle, to the options of “grouping” two apps that you usually use together, are really trying to push new workflows or turning some analog ones into a digital one, like reading a book on one window while taking notes on the other, something that apparently CEO Satya Nadella loves to do on his Surface Duo.

The Cornerstone

I pointed out who I believe will be the most obvious addressable market for Surface Duo. I also can tell you that Surface Duo will disappoint anyone who is not willing to invest some time in figuring out what the device can do for them. As it is often the case with a new category of devices, you need to have an exploration period. Maybe you think it is just semantics, but I consider this different to a learning curve. With Surface Duo, there is nothing to learn per se. It is the software and the apps you know and hardware that, at times, behaves like a phone and others like a compact PC. What you need to figure out is how you bring together all those things you know and make them work for you. This is not a process that everybody wants to go through, especially when it comes with a price tag of $1399.

Whether the Surface Duo is for you or not, what matters most is the opportunity it brings to reinvigorate the Android app ecosystem thanks to the work that the Surface and the Android team will continue to do. This work will benefit Android smartphone players like Samsung and Motorola, who are already foldable segment. It will also benefit PC OEMs and Microsoft first-party apps that will benefit from the tighter connection between phone and computer, possibly what many PC users envy Mac and iPhone users the most. Ironically, even Chromebooks could end up benefitting from this effort. The Surface Team brings a deep understanding of the synergies between hardware and software more so than even a company like Samsung can bring and this is ultimately what is exciting about this collaboration.

For the Surface team, Duo will test what users will be willing to do with the form factor and give a good indication of what can be done for Neo and other products with dual screens and eventually folding screens.

I look forward to exploring how Surface Duo will transform my workflows and rest assured, I will share that in a column soon.