Why Calling the Surface Duo a Phone Would Be Missing The Point

on October 3, 2019
Reading Time: 4 minutes

This year’s Surface event in New York felt as significant as the first Surface launch back in 2012. The critical difference, however, is that the impact that we see Surface devices deliver today affects not just the Windows Ecosystem but Microsoft as a company overall.

In just under two hours, Panos Panay introduced updates to the popular Surface Pro 7 and the Surface Laptop, now in aluminum and a larger which 15″ running on AMD silicon. He also had some additions to the portfolio: the new Surface Pro X running on a new custom chipset, the Microsoft SQ1, born from a collaboration with Qualcomm, and the Surface Earbuds. The reason why I consider this event so significant, however, is linked to two new products that show where Surface is heading, and the vision Panay and the team have for computing: Surface Duo and Surface Neo. Both these devices are dual-screen devices that are tightly intertwined in the way they encapsulate the best of Microsoft in an OS-agnostic way.

So many Windows Phone and Surface fans have been waiting for a Surface phone to be added to the portfolio for a very long time. But what was delivered this week with the Surface Duo might not be exactly what they wanted. Surface Duo must not be seen as Microsoft re-entry into the phone market. Yes I know, Microsoft is making a phone and selling a phone under the Surface brand, so their sales will show up in smartphone market share statistics and people will go out of their way to see if Surface Duo is an iPhone or Galaxy Fold killer. Looking at the Surface Duo in this light misses the significant role that this device has for the present and the future of Microsoft, not just Surface. It is only when you think about this broader impact that you can understand why we have a Surface running on Android.

A Front Row Seat for Microsoft Services

So why launch a smartphone now? If you’ve been following along over the past year or so, you have noticed Microsoft building more ties between Windows and Android. Microsoft has been making sure that PC users could benefit from their services in the best possible way on an Android phone, but also that they could feel that power amplified by first-party apps that deliver value through a seamless cross-platform performance.

With the launch of Surface Duo, Surface is delivering the best Microsoft experience on an Android device. Surface Duo follows the same high-standard in hardware design we are accustomed to while empowering rich and seamless workflows where the stars are the apps and the overall experience rather than the OS. Surface Duo gives a front-row seat to Outlook, Word, OneNote, OneDrive, to millions of users who every day use these apps on their Windows 10 PC as well as their phone. I am hoping it will also expose other apps currently on Android and iOS like Microsoft Translator and Microsoft Pix. For me, this is the key difference between Surface Duo and any previous attempt, under Nokia and Microsoft to deliver a smartphone. Surface Duo is not about taking the Windows experience to a phone and attempting to create an ecosystem. It is also not about taking users to Windows, but rather it is about meeting users where they are and creating more engagement and stickiness for Microsoft services on the most popular mobile platform.

In a world that is more and more driven by the power of data and what that data empowers as far as AI and ML, it is critical for Microsoft to drive engagement on as many platforms through as many apps and services today and in the future.

The Future of Computing

The other role that Surface Duo plays is to open the way for Surface Neo. Over the years, it has been proven that changing workflows, especially around productivity, is hard. When two-in-ones and convertibles came to market, users were attracted by the designs but were reluctant to consider them as laptop replacements. The resistance that these devices were met with, and the debate surrounding what makes a PC are still alive, especially in those enterprises where workflows are centered around legacy apps. A push towards modern work with cloud-first apps has been helping drive change. Surface Pro has been somewhat immune to many of these discussions over the years because running full Windows was enough to be considered a computer. But running “full” Windows might not be always necessary when the cloud is changing apps and workflows.

We do not have much detail on Windows 10X that will be running on Surface Neo, but what we know is that it is a new expression of Windows 10 built with dual screens in mind. This means it is not a one size fits all version of Windows, but it is specifically designed to deliver a seamless experience on a dual-screen device while being familiar to users.

Time and time again, we see users bending backward to fit their workflows around their phones. We do not question whether or not that phone is a computer; we simply use it to get things done. Surface Duo will empower users to find new workflows that take advantage of the dual-screen and highly mobile design. Because it is a phone, Surface Duo will not have to fight for a place in a portfolio of products which means that users will be heavily engaged with it.

It was evident that Microsoft was very cautious about calling the Surface Duo a phone because of their painful history. And although I agree and explained why calling it a phone might have led people to think differently about this product, I think it’s also important to understand that history got us to Surface Duo. We saw these new Surface models this week because of what Microsoft learned, because of how Microsoft changed as a company and with that how the role of Windows has changed. Microsoft is now a company that sees cloud and AI at the core of everything they do. Windows is one of its assets but not the ultimate one. Microsoft is invested in bringing an experience through all Surface hardware, their first-party apps and their services that transcend operating systems and gives users value in many different ways.

This week we witnessed the role of Surface devices move from being the best implementation of Windows to being the best implementation of Microsoft. This shift does not mean that Microsoft is no longer a software company, but it does mean that software does not define and limit the value that Microsoft can bring to its customers.