The Surface Duo shows Microsoft still has no clue about smartphones

Microsoft has answered the call from the faithful and announced a new Surface phone. It’s called the Surface Duo, and its existence effectively ends all the speculation about such a device, which has run rampant for years.

Sorry, I said the Duo was a phone, didn’t I? My mistake, because apparently it’s not.

Quite right too, because the Duo is further evidence Microsoft still has absolutely no clue about smartphones, how people want to use them, what makes them desirable — or the speed with which the industry is moving.

From the company that couldn’t win at phones even with the help of Nokia, comes the Surface Duo, a bizarre concept-peddled-as-a-final-product that’s a non-starter even now. But with it comes one redeeming feature that may help make actual folding smartphones better for everyone.

Surface Duo: Not a phone?

microsoft surface duo phone news main
Microsoft

No. It’s not a phone, OK? It’s a Surface. At least, that’s according to Microsoft Chief Product Officer Panos Panay, who introduced the Duo on stage during its October 2 event, alongside of the Surface Pro 7, Surface X, Surface Laptop 3, and basically a whole lot of Surface stuff.

“You’re going to talk about it as a phone, and I get that,” he said. “You’re going to talk about it as a communication device, and it does both those things incredibly well. But make no mistake, this product is a Surface.”

Cue the cheers from the crowd, because this statement was one purely for the Microsoft fanboys. Panay’s statement was obfuscation, in that if he blatantly called the Duo a phone, the company instantly invites comparisons between the Duo and every other productivity-focused smartphone on the market, from the Galaxy Note 10 Plus to the LG G8X Dual Screen, and the Galaxy Fold and the Huawei Mate X.

Much better to sidestep that landmine early on, because the Duo has clearly been designed by a company that is still, even after all this time, rather confused about what people want from a crucial everyday mobile device like a smartphone.

But it is a phone, just not a very usable one

The Cambridge dictionary defines a telephone as, “a device for speaking to someone in another place by means of electrical signals.” You can’t fool me Microsoft, because I saw the Surface Duo do exactly this in the introduction video. It runs Google Android too, the same as 76% of the world’s smartphones. It has Google Play, and a Snapdragon processor too. All of this put together, along with the convenient pocketable size, makes it a smartphone.

Except despite looking like a duck and quacking like a duck, the Duo is obviously a turkey. Making a smartphone without a screen on the outside of its folded up case, and where the camera is currently only able to be used when the Duo is opened up, takes a special kind of “insight” into the smartphone market. Excitingly though, Panay told Wired the camera aspect, “may change,” as it’s still early days.

I won’t hold my breath. Panay is not convinced by the need for such an alteration, adding that although the Duo is supposed to help you “become more creative and productive,” this doesn’t include, “a bajillion-megapixel camera on the back of the product.” Quite right. Such frivolity doesn’t belong on a Surface.

It does, however, belong on a smartphone. Research from the beginning of the year showed 35% of new device buyers consider the camera the most desirable feature on their newly purchased phone. Durability is even higher at 47%, which is why folding the screen so it’s on the outside won’t be a welcome solution for checking notifications or snapping a photo. Foldable screens, by comparison, are desired by only 21% of those surveyed.

When is it being released?

lg g8x thinq dual screen review case open
LG G8X ThinQ Dual Screen Case Open Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

Microsoft has really given us a look at the future with the Surface Duo, because it’s coming this time next year, barring any unforeseen delays. It’s at least one complete, whole year away. Phew, it’s a good thing the smartphone world doesn’t move very quickly, right? And what a very good thing you can’t buy anything like the Surface Duo already!

Except the LG G8X Dual Screen. You can buy that very soon. It’s even a second-generation product, because in March this year, LG released the V50 ThinQ with a Dual Screen case that didn’t have a screen on the outside, a gigantic oversight it fixed on the G8X Dual Screen, which is a proper smartphone with cameras and everything. If you wanted to, and are slightly mad, you could probably still find a dual-screen ZTE Axon M too.

Or you could splash out on the Galaxy Fold, an actual folding smartphone that next to the Surface Duo, looks like it has been beamed back from several years in the future. The biggest problem for the Duo is that with a year’s wait, it likely won’t look contemporary. First-generation folding smartphones look cool and desirable now — just look at the Huawei Mate X — but what happens when we see second- and potentially even third-generation tech in 2020? We know several manufacturers are working on foldable phone technology, after all. Microsoft also said the phone is powered by the Snapdragon 855 chipset — it will be dated compared to the next-gen Snapdragon chip most flagship Android phones will be using next year unless Microsoft plans to update the processor.

Think I’m exaggerating? Would you back a Kickstarter campaign for a product that looks decent today, but has a release date set for a year’s time, and not question whether you’ll still feel the same about it when the shipping email eventually drops into your inbox?

Redeeming feature

Why talk about the Surface Duo so early? It’s pretty simple, and Microsoft showed its hand during the event. It needs developers to write apps and software that takes advantage of the screen layout, otherwise the Duo is dead. This is the problem facing folding smartphones everywhere. It’s one of the reasons the Huawei Mate X hasn’t gone on sale yet, and extra time to hone apps was an unexpected benefit of Samsung being forced to delay the Galaxy Fold.

Software is the redeeming feature of the Surface Duo, or more specifically it’s the burgeoning partnership between Google and Microsoft that’s promising, because the demo software looked really slick, and that’s what foldables in general need. The Surface Duo, Panay said, represents the best of Microsoft and the best of Android, and that’s exciting.

Samsung benefited a great deal from its close working relationship with Google on the Galaxy Fold — efforts that will continue to make foldable smartphones better in the near future. Microsoft also wants to make it easier to swap between your phone and computer, something Samsung and Huawei have also been working on for a while. Microsoft’s understanding of software and productivity, along with Google’s mastery of mobile, may help solve the key problems we face with foldable devices — usefulness, synchronicity, and seamlessness between screens — for many manufacturers.

The Surface Duo is further evidence Microsoft doesn’t get smartphones; but that’s OK, because we need to forget the hardware anyway, as it’s the software that has the greatest potential to positively impact mobile devices over the coming year.

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