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Yes, the Microsoft phone is really happening: Introducing the Surface Duo

The company known for its Windows operating system is getting back into smartphones by embracing its rival's ecosystem.

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Microsoft Product Chief Panos Panay gave a glimpse of the Surface Duo Android phone that will go on sale in a year. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Microsoft is making an Android phone. And it has two screens. The Windows software maker showed off its device, called the Surface Duo, at an event in New York on Wednesday. The company said the two screens (a slightly different design than Samsung's foldable Galaxy Fold) would make users more productive, and it showed video of people using a stylus with the phone, which it says isn't a phone at all. The device has two 5.6-inch displays that expand to an 8.3-inch device. 

It didn't provide many other details about the Surface Duo -- which joins another, larger dual-screen device, the Surface Neo -- but said it will be available in holiday 2020. The event also saw the launch of Windows 10 X software for dual-screen devices. More prosaic new products included the Surface Laptop 3, Surface Pro X and Surface Pro 7 tablets, Surface Earbuds and the SQ1 custom Arm chip.

Now playing: Watch this: Microsoft unveils Surface Duo, a foldable Android phone
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By partnering with Google, the Surface Duo will be able to run apps from the Google Play Store. 

"This product brings together the absolute best of Microsoft, and we're partnering with Google to bring the absolute best of Android in one product," Microsoft Product Chief Panos Panay said. "This is industry pushing technology."

Microsoft tried for over two decades to make operating systems for mobile phones, but it gave up on the effort two years ago. It couldn't compete with the popularity of Google's Android and Apple's iOS, which will be on 87% and 13% of the world's smartphones this year, respectively, according to IDC. Instead, Microsoft has opted to expand its Office software and other services to rival devices, including iPhones. The company's first Android phone takes that further. 

Getting back into phones won't be easy. There are really only three companies who sell devices in huge numbers and make any money from their smartphones -- Samsung, Huawei and Apple. In the second quarter, 22% of smartphones shipped in the world were made by Samsung, 17% by Huawei and 11% by Apple, according to Strategy Analytics. No one else cracked 10%, though Chinese vendors Xiaomi and Oppo came close. It's unlikely that Microsoft, with an Android phone, would ever become a major phone vendor. 

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The Microsoft Surface Duo will launch late next year.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Microsoft isn't the first company to make a smartphone with two displays -- but it's hoping to be the first that's really successful. ZTE's Axom M hit the market in 2017 but didn't exactly spark a trend. LG earlier this year showed off a Dual Screen attachment for its first 5G phone, the V50, as well as a version for its LG G8X ThinQ phone. But LG's device hasn't generated the same buzz as foldable phones from Samsung and Huawei and even rumored foldables from companies like Motorola

While Microsoft is betting that dual screens is the future, most other companies in the phone market are counting on foldable displays. Nearly ever major handset maker is rumored to be working on a foldable device.