Technology

The Surface Duo is a phone

Foldable future: How Microsoft hopes to define a new hardware category with Surface Neo and Duo
ZDNet’s Larry Dignan and TechRepublic’s Bill Detwiler discuss why Microsoft’s Windows-based Surface Neo and Android-based Surface Duo are just a glimpse at the dual-screen, foldable devices that will redefine the laptop, tablet, and phone markets.

The name of Microsoft’s Surface Duo itself has a double meaning. On the surface, it refers to the device’s two displays subject to many of the pros and cons I detailed in a recent column on the Surface Neo. But, below the surface, and unlike the Surface Neo, it blends what Microsoft calls the best of itself and the best of Google.

Above all, Microsoft emphasizes, the Surface Duo is a Surface. For it to credibly represent one, the notion of what a Surface is must shift past a Windows-centric definition. Surface represents the ideal Microsoft client, and Microsoft is accepting its reality in mobile. While the company’s efforts to better integrate customers’ phones with their PCs is in its early days, its partnership with Samsung has enabled it to gain exposure to a far greater base of phone users, particularly the enterprise customers it strongly desires, than it ever could with its own mobile platform. Microsoft may not have had much choice beyond Android for a pocket device, but the company explains the OS differences between the Neo and Duo more as picking the right technology for the form factor.

Oddly, Microsoft has done a better job explaining the Surface Duo’s identity than its category. This too is defensible to an extent, because, fully outstretched, the Duo creates a workspace closer to the tablet than most smartphones. On the other hand, it makes calls and slips into a pocket; that has been good enough for Huawei and Samsung to label their folding devices as phones.

There are at least two factors at play here. From a strategic perspective, despite now offering access to the Google Play library, the company isn’t eager to invite characterization of the Duo as yet another chapter in its struggling handset history. And from a product perspective, the Duo is not intended to go head-to-head with the best from Apple, Samsung, and others when it comes to advanced features such as multi-lens cameras that can almost snatch light from a black hole. (In an example of clever reuse and cost savings, there is no external camera on the Surface Duo prototype since one can use it fully rotated to expose the camera facing outward and one of its displays facing inward.) Finally, with the company extending a relationship with Samsung and forging one with Google, it has a legitimate interest in not portraying the Duo as a direct competitor to the Galaxy and Pixel smartphone brands.

Unfortunately, this risks leaving the Duo in categorical limbo. Is it a fourth device between the tablet and smartphone? Planet Computers is the maker of a keyboard-equipped Psion 5 homage with optional LTE connectivity known as the Gemini. It calls that device a PDA even though it can make calls. (The company has also developed a similar device with a small exterior screen that it calls a phone.) That retro classification may work for an Indiegogo alumnus, but not for Microsoft, and particularly not for a device that is trying to push interaction forward rather than update its past.

Ultimately, then, calling the Duo a “phone” is the best option. It may not be a person’s only phone, but it will be used in place of one, at least situationally. While the company may prefer that users spend more time with its apps than those on Google Play, the latter go a long way toward shaping what we consider a modern smartphone experience. Microsoft could set expectations of differentiation by describing the Surface Duo as a “productivity phone” or, playing on its focus on Surface-Office integration, the reinvention of the “Office phone.” The Surface Duo represents a new journey — for its users, for the smartphone category, and for the company’s return to the pocket. The smartphone is at its finish line.

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