Microsoft Delivers New Mobile Productivity Use Cases With Surface Duo, Orderable Today For $1,399

Microsoft Surface Duo

Last October, Microsoft announced two new products, the Surface Duo (read here) and the Surface Neo (read here), to join its Surface lineup. While the Covid-19 crisis and Windows 10X reprioritization has delayed the release of the Surface Neo, today, Microsoft officially released its new Android smartphone, the Surface Duo. Last year, Microsoft promised Duo by “holiday 2020,” so it is technically here a bit early with availability on September 10th and orderable today. I attended a special demo for press and analysts yesterday and wanted to share my thoughts. 

Surface-branded products, especially its PC lineup, have a track record of releasing new and innovative products that pushed the idea of what it means to be a laptop and a tablet. The Surface Duo is a vision from the Surface team, like the vision of the Surface as a tablet and a laptop. Microsoft’s vision for the Surface Duo, as a Surface device first and a smartphone second, is to bring a Windows experience to the mobile platform. From what I have seen so far, I think the team will ultimately create a new category of device for Microsoft fans primarily interested in getting things done in a mobile form factor. While at first, I confused this with foldables, this is an entirely different experience. It’s very different.

Windows-inspired features

The inspiration from the Surface Duo comes from Microsoft’s enterprise pedigree and Windows OS’s multitasking capabilities. Microsoft’s thought process behind the Surface Duo is that it wants to take productivity on Windows devices and bring it to the Android mobile platform. The Surface Duo’s multi-display approach brings those productivity and creativity capabilities to a mobile platform I believe in a similar way that multiple displays and multiple windows (and monitor) on Windows increases productivity.

Android already has a feature that allows users to place multiple apps on one screen. However, multitasking on one display is very different than multitasking on two displays. When you’re multitasking on one display, you are opening and switching between apps and in the process, potentially getting distracted or lost in what you were originally doing. In large memory apps on iPhones, it actually has to shut down the previous application, “spool” it to storage, then reopen when you come back, potentially losing state and data. That is a part of the nature and limitations of having one screen to do all your important work. It’s impractical to get “real” work done on a mobile device when you’re dismissing an app or putting it away and doing something else. Likewise, two displays can very easily work against each other if the proper synchronization and seamless transitions do not take place between the two displays. I believe Microsoft has done a great job of creating a connected display experience that acts as one display on the Surface Duo.

Android apps on Duo can be either run separately in each “window” or, if modifications are made, to the application using Microsoft’s available API, and it can span across the entire eight inches from the right and left screen to add incremental value. I attended a special demo for press and analysts and I see some real potential with:

  • Spanned Outlook and Outlook Calendar: L-email as you would expect; R-click the email on the left, see the entire email on the right. L-calendar as you would expect; R-click the entry on the left, see the entire entry on the right. Because you have the full calendar on the left, you could more easily reschedule.
Spanning Outlook
  • Spanned OneNote: L-Notes as you would expect; R-click the note on the left, see the note on the right. Would work best if you were looking for something specific.
  • Spanned Kindle: L and R- as you would expect, you have pages on both sides. This could be a real game-changer.
  • Spanned Microsoft News: L- news as you would expect; R-click the headline on the left, see the entire story on the right.
  • Twitter and Teams: I could see if briefings get boring doing Twitter, and I will admit to checking Twitter occasionally. 
  • Edge and OneNote: I do lots and lots of web research and take notes in OneNote so this could be valuable.
  • Teams and PowerPoint: This one is simple. Doing a Teams video call and presenting PowerPoint.
  • Teams and OneNote: I do lots and lots of meetings and take notes in OneNote so this one looks like a no-brainer.

From what I have seen from the demos, using two apps and spanning takes a little practice, but looks worth it if you invest the time. I am looking forward to a real review.

That awesome display

The Surface Duo unfolds two PixelSense Fusion Displays that fold out to be one 8.1-inch OLED display. The Surface Duo’s displays are built to seamlessly play together as if they are one. Microsoft says the Surface Duo has a “custom pixel stack,” and each set of panels undergo extensive color luminance calibration. A part of this color calibration is Microsoft’s new manufacturing processes that actively align pixels across screens. In other words, Microsoft is not only accurately calibrating the pixels, but it is also accurately calibrating the pixels across both screens together. Microsoft has also made the device incredibly thin for a smartphone, and it’s definitely noticeable in hand. The 360-degree hinge had a major part in being thin as well and was just as impressive as the calibration. The hinges had to connect mechanically and electrically to have a 360-degree design. Microsoft said it uses watch-like precision to make the gears inside the hinge move seamlessly with passing ultrathin wires.

Duo is ridiculously thin unfolded and folded

Microsoft has also included in the display proprietary digitizer algorithms that consider when your finger is crossing the seam. This feature is fundamental to the vision of the Surface Duo in that it keeps the separation of the screen intact while interacting with the screens in one fluid motion. We must keep in mind that the seam between the displays is there on purpose. There needs to be a separation so that there are two distinct displays for two distinct tasks and, of course, to make the device thinner. Having two displays is an important concept to the Surface Duo because, unlike a foldable display, it separates the screen and gives it pen support with an entirely glass display.  

Android is primed and ready for a Duo device

As I mentioned in my first blog about the Surface Duo here, I believe Microsoft and Android are in its best position now for Microsoft to jump back into smartphones under the innovative Surface brand and more importantly, product management and marketing process and team. I think this is especially true since all of Windows Mobile’s issues have been resolved with Android. Android is a much more mature OS in terms of having sufficient apps and security. And, while Android arguably is a more distracting OS compared to Windows because of its single display nature, it has the potential to be the productivity and creativity OS that the Surface Duo is looking for with multi-monitor (multimon) support. Steven Bathiche from the Surface development team described the Surface Duo as a “multimon that can go in your pocket.” I liked that as I am a huge multi-monitor user even when I’m on the road. Android has the flexibility to create a mulitmon mobile platform, and Microsoft has the relationship with Google and Android to make it happen. This past year, Microsoft has even given us a taste of how it can influence Android updated 365 apps, and with its partnership with Samsung to bring an enhanced Microsoft experience to an Android device, with one of the best business single display mobile devices, the Note10+.

Alternatively, Microsoft could have decided to adopt its new Windows 10X OS for its new Surface Duo smartphone. However, it would have brought back some really bad memories for Microsoft and would not have gone well. Windows 10X is a new operating system that is built for a touch screen device with two screens, specifically the Surface Neo. It is Windows for dual screen tablets, and if Microsoft tried to make it into a smartphone OS, it would likely fail because Windows 10X apps are legacy Windows apps and touch specific Windows apps. If Microsoft wanted to bring a fully-fledged Windows to the mobile platform, I think it could do it with the YourPhone app, but I don’t think it’s necessary. The dual display experience is sufficient and practical enough to bring the whole vision of the Surface team into the smartphone.

Microsoft’s vision with Android is even more realized when we look at how the company has been grooming Android for the past year or so with the new Edge Mobile browser, Microsoft Teams with a new family update, and the new Office app. Microsoft’s Office app combines all your files across Microsoft solutions and allows users to perform different actions on them. Microsoft introduced Teams for consumer 365 users, which was first introduced on mobile iOS and Android platforms. Edge browser also got the largest update in its existence on Windows and on the mobile platform. All these new Microsoft app updates come on the enterprise and consumer levels of Microsoft 365.

Edge browser and Tasks

On the whole, smartphones are consumer-centric with a primary purpose to entertain and connect to different social media groups. But before we had the smartphone, cellular devices were heading in a direction that was led in an enterprise-centric setting; I’m thinking PDAs and Blackberry devices. In today’s smartphone space, there are not very many devices competing for productivity. Even more so, much of the productivity smartphone space is being influenced by Microsoft with the Samsung partnership. It makes sense for Microsoft to further its smartphone influence by making a dual-display smartphone with the end goal and use case of productivity and creativity centered on Microsoft fans.

The Surface Duo also has the enterprise-level security you would expect from a Surface device. It uses Microsoft’s custom engineered UEFI firmware that is used across the entire Surface lineup and Verified Boot. It has fingerprint sensor on the side for biometric security. The Surface Duo has hardware-assisted encryption that protects data in transit as well as at rest, and it runs apps in isolated sandboxes to prevent compromises. It also uses Google Play Protect to actively scan apps for malware and protects network traffic with TLS and VPNs. Management configurations can also separate work and personal data and secure the device. 

Wrapping up

Microsoft has been here before. Smartphones are not a new platform for Microsoft, and even though this is a new OS experience, Microsoft is very familiar with Android. Microsoft, with its 365 apps, has been grooming Android for many years and I think now is the perfect time for Microsoft to introduce a new use case for smartphones for its fans.

I believe, the dual display design, paired with the Android experience, is going to be great for Microsoft fans who are looking for a productive-specific device and Microsoft fans will invest the required time to learn multimon and spanning which is key to the platform’s benefit. I think the Surface Duo is going to deliver that in a pre-dominantly consumer-centric smartphone market. I believe Microsoft has the team to do it with Surface and the relationships with Android to make the Surface Duo a success.

Note: Moor Insights & Strategy co-op Jacob Freyman contributed to this article.

Patrick Moorhead

Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.