Sometimes, it’s the message hidden behind the headlines that has the biggest impact in the long run.
Such is the case with today’s official debut of the Microsoft Surface Duo mobile device—or what a lot of people will likely call the Surface phone. Yes, there are important details in today’s news that many have been eagerly awaiting since the company first announced the phone’s existence back in October of last year. But beyond the specs, prices, availability (pre-orders today, full availability September 10), and even unique workflow concepts that the Surface Duo enables, there’s something that could prove to be even more influential: the Microsoft influence on Android.
Before I explain what I mean, let’s cover the basics. The $1,399 starting price for a Surface Duo is definitely on the high side, particularly during the middle of a pandemic, and undoubtedly, some will be disappointed by that. Yes, there will always be a market for high-end phones, but it’s getting pretty crowded up there these days. Plus, we’ve yet to see the forthcoming 5G iPhones.
From a purely technical perspective, there’s a lot to like in the Surface Duo, as well as a number of things to justify that price point. Most notably, the two high-resolution (1,800 x 1,350) Corning Gorilla Glass covered 5.6” AMOLED displays that fold out into an impressive 8.1”, 401 dpi screen definitely look to be a sight to behold. There’s also a great deal of custom engineering that went into the Surface Duo’s 360-degree hinge design, as well as the internal components (including custom antennas and wiring) needed to make the device work.
At the same time, as often seems to be the case with early generation Surface devices in new categories, there are some frustrating technical limitations as well—at least for these price points. For example, while the Surface Duo is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon SOC, it’s the previous generation 855, instead of the 865 that most new high-end phones are likely to have. In addition, it’s a 4G phone with only WiFi 5 (instead of WiFi 6) support, and the single camera’s resolution is a tad low at 11 MP.
Now, to be fair to Microsoft’s Surface (and now Windows) lead, Panos Panay, and team, most of these details probably don’t matter to the Surface fans and dedicated Microsoft 365 users that they’re targeting with this product. Plus, none of these spec details are visible in the sleek, less than 5 mm thin, foldable two-screen design and user experience that they’ve created with Surface Duo.
Of course, to fans of the Surface Duo concept, that’s the real point of this device. It’s an effort to rethink how we use and think about mobile devices. In fact, that’s arguably the biggest reason why Microsoft isn’t calling the Surface Duo a smartphone. (Though it does kind of walk and quack like a duck, so….)
The real goal is to create a mobile, multi-screen device that will allow people to be as productive as possible, regardless of where they are. Equally important, it’s meant to be a great companion device to a Windows 10 PC (Surface or not), via the Windows Your Phone app, and a great Microsoft 365 client with native local apps, all while providing access to the full range of millions of Android mobile applications. That’s a big challenge to tackle, and without being able to try the device yet, it’s impossible to determine whether they’ve succeeded or not.
What is very clear, though, even now, is that with the Surface Duo, Microsoft is starting to influence the look, feel, and functional capabilities of Android in a very positive way. Fans of Microsoft’s Launcher Android app/UI may recognize that much of the clean design that Microsoft is showing with the Surface Duo has some heritage there. To have the native experience of an Android device reflect a Microsoft design aesthetic from the moment it’s turned on, however, is very new and, to my mind, very interesting. It also reflects the degree to which Google was willing to let Microsoft adjust its user experience, which is intriguing as well.
Having said that, there’s still plenty of Google’s influence in the Surface Duo, including the Google search bar widget on the home screen and the default usage of Google Assistant. In fact, it’s arguably a “best of” combination, with different elements from the different companies contributing to the overall experience.
What’s even more interesting is the extensions that Microsoft has been working on for the Surface Duo that fully leverage the multiple screens within the regular Android experience. Microsoft argues that their dual-screen approach is more cognitively effective than even a single larger screen. And, in fact, a few of the demos they have on the Surface Duo certainly show some compelling cases. From previewing individual emails in Outlook to launching and then simultaneously viewing links from within a text message or other app without losing sight of where you started, the new workflows enabled by the Surface Duo design definitely look to be a more compelling option than the single-screen experience to which we’re all accustomed.
The final piece of this influence puzzle is the critical point that the changes that Microsoft is working on are not a unique fork of Android that will only appear on the Surface Duo. Instead, these contributions are being given back to the Android core code. In conjunction with other APIs and work that Google has already done for foldable and dual-screen devices, this combination should provide important potential benefits for many more phone OEMs to use. Given Microsoft’s recent announcements with Samsung at last week’s Unpacked event for software extensions on the new Samsung phones, I’m particularly intrigued to see if we will see similar capabilities on the second-generation Galaxy Z Fold 2 foldable device, the final details for which are scheduled to be revealed on September 1. After all, if you can use these software extensions to turn a single larger screen into two smaller virtual screens, you should theoretically be able to create a similar experience to the Surface Duo, with the added benefit of not having a physical seam between the two displays when you want a single screen experience.
Regardless, it’s definitely exciting to see multiple tech players coming together in interesting ways to better leverage these innovative foldable form factors. Fans of Microsoft’s Surface designs will likely find the Surface Duo to be an intriguing new addition, but I’m hoping Microsoft’s contributions and influence on Android have an even wider-reaching impact.
Disclosure: TECHnalysis Research is a tech industry market research and consulting firm and, like all companies in that field, works with many technology vendors as clients, some of whom may be listed in this article.