Microsoft's Surface Duo could start a new smartphone era -- or be a two-screen disaster
Update, Sept. 22, 2021: Microsoft held its 2021 Surface event on Sept. 22, and unveiled the Surface Duo 2. The new folding phone features a faster processor, better cameras and many other upgrades compared to the Surface Duo.
Last month was an odd sort of anniversary at Microsoft . In the summer of 2015, Taylor Swift's Bad Blood and Wiz Khalifa's See You Again topped the charts while speculation about the iPhone 6S was running wild.
And that July, Microsoft announced one of its most spectacular fails -- ever.
Satya Nadella, just a year into his tenure as Microsoft CEO, announced a $7.6 billion financial loss for Microsoft because of the company's failed acquisition of phone giant Nokia , announced in 2013. Worse, 7,800 workers would lose their jobs. Nadella pretty much said they'd step back from the smartphone market in the near future.
"We are moving from a strategy to grow a standalone phone business to a strategy to grow and create a vibrant Windows ecosystem including our first-party device family," Nadella said in an email to Microsoft employees at the time. "I am committed to our first-party devices, including phones."
Turns out that wasn't the end of Microsoft's phone ambitions. Around the time the company was writing off Nokia, a team inside Microsoft was hatching a plan to create a new device, one that would straddle what a phone and tablet could be and finally give Microsoft relevance in the half-trillion dollar global smartphone market, dominated by Samsung , Apple and Huawei.
The result is the Surface Duo, a $1,399 smartphone-ish device that weighs 8.8 ounces and features two 5.6-inch screens that come together to form a larger display with a hinged seam down the center. The design allows it to lay unfolded, flat on a table. You can also set it up like a tent, with the two screens facing outward. You can hold it open like a book, with the two screens facing inward. And you can close it like a clamshell. Microsoft's approach runs counter to other foldable devices released this year, including the Galaxy Z Fold 2, which Samsung hasn't revealed the price of yet. Samsung's device is built around a single 7.6-inch interior screen that bends when closed.
"We just have a belief there's a new category here," Panos Panay, Microsoft's chief product officer and Surface head, told me in an interview last week about Microsoft's unique design. "We know how much more productive people are on two monitors."
The other thing that makes the Surface Duo unusual is that it's not powered by Microsoft's Windows software for PCs, or its mobile variant that was discontinued in 2017. Instead, it runs on a modified version of Google's Android, the software used by pretty much every smartphone or tablet that doesn't come from Apple. Also notable is that the Surface Duo -- unlike the Samsung's Galaxy Z Fold 2 -- doesn't support next-generation 5G wireless technology. Microsoft said it opted to skip 5G as part of a trade-off to save battery life and allow the device to be only 4.8 millimeters thick when open (less than the iPad Pro's 5.9 millimeters). When closed, the two screens stack on one another, making the Surface Duo's thickness 9.9 millimeters -- or less than half an inch.
"When we designed it, the intent was, 'How do you make something so thin, beautiful, light and super elegant that when people pick it up they can feel that emotion in the product,"' Panay said.
This kind of talk about changing our lives through a product is common among tech executives and particularly of Panay, whose sentimental stage presence at Microsoft events stands out from the typically robotic marketing people going through their script.
But he steadfastly believes the Surface Duo has something to contribute to the world, whether you call it a phone or a dual-screen tablet or a whatever, as tech watchers debated when it was unveiled last year.
Panay shows us his personal Surface Duo device during a video chat, with messages on the right side, ESPN on the left. He tries to hide calendar invites and emails as he excitedly demonstrates how they work. "I believe the world needs to move forward creating a more mobile, productive world," he said.
Whether you'll believe him probably has a bit to do with what you think of Microsoft. CNET reviewer Scott Stein, who got to play with a see-through prototype that didn't have working screens, says the Surface Duo feels comfortable to hold, like a book. "It doesn't feel like two phones glued together, either," Stein said.
Meanwhile, tech watchers debate whether the Surface Duo's shortcomings are justified for what Microsoft built as essentially a work and productivity machine.
"Anyone who chooses a Duo over a more conventional phone will need to be all in on Microsoft's vision of productivity as the device's heart and soul," wrote Fast Company's Harry McCracken.
The Surface Duo goes on sale Sept. 10, but is available from Microsoft, AT&T and Best Buy for preorder starting Wednesday. Microsoft had initially planed to launch the device on Aug. 28, but said it ran into administrative issues.
The Surface Duo will work on AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless networks. The AT&T version will be locked to that network.
It's easy to dismiss Microsoft -- and many people do. The 45-year-old company is treated like the elder statesman of tech, which it is, and Nadella himself proudly admits his company isn't cool. "You join here not to be cool, but to make others cool," he told me in 2018. "You want to be cool by doing that empowerment ... It's the result that matters."
So while it may not be a buzzy, hip company, it's valued at $1.54 trillion, making it one of the top five companies in the world along with Amazon , Apple and Google parent Alphabet. Its Windows software powers more than 77% of the computers on the planet. And its Office productivity software is so ingrained in our culture that most of my friends don't know the name of Google's free competing apps -- they're just "the Google version of Excel" or "Google's PowerPoint." (They're called Google Sheets and Slides, but even I had to look that up to be sure.)
Microsoft became such a powerful force that a judge determined the company violated antitrust rules in 2002. But the US government just slapped it on the wrist and let it continue being Microsoft. "Now the only way Microsoft can die is by suicide," industry pundit Robert Cringely wrote after the verdict.
You could argue it's tried that too.
Microsoft's Surface Duo sits at the top of a mind-boggling pile of fails, with untold billions of dollars lost on acquisitions, distractions and dead-ends.
In 2014, Microsoft bought then struggling Nokia, which had a huge role in building the cell phone as we know it. Microsoft purchased Nokia to get in the mobile game after missing the smartphone revolution, and then failing to find success with Samsung, LG and HTC making Windows Phone-powered devices.
The billions of dollars lost on Nokia don't include the failed Windows Phone software that powered its Lumia phones, the millions spent wooing developers to make apps for those handsets, or the millions more doled out on advertising against market leaders Samsung and Apple. (And don't get me started on Microsoft's squandered opportunity with the Pocket PC initiative, which started in 2000 and was killed off in 2010.)
The phone flops don't stop at Nokia and Windows Phone. There's also the Kin smartphone for teens, born from its 2008 acquisition of phone maker Danger for a reported $500 million. The device was so unpopular it was pulled from store shelves within two months of its 2010 launch.
Outside of phones, Microsoft's most notable fails include Bing, the search engine it released in 2009 to take on Google. Today, it has 6% market share compared with Google's 86%.
And if you don't remember the Zune media player meant to take on the iPod, Microsoft would probably prefer you keep it that way.
Fortunately for Microsoft, it continues to rake in large piles of money from Windows, Office and its Azure business and storage servers to offset those losses. As of June, Microsoft had $133 billion in its piggy bank -- and that's despite the economic collapse caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Today, Microsoft's Surface tablet PC is well thought of, and the software and services that run it live up to expectations.
The question is whether the Surface Duo, a device that took more than five years and an untold amount of money to create (the company wouldn't say how much), will be a home run like Office, well regarded like the Surface or another Nokia money pit.
"It's the beginning of a whole new venture for a new form factor and not just for Microsoft," Panay said. "I think that's pretty awesome."
He and his team are especially excited about the philosophy that drove the Surface Duo's design.
But Panay isn't naive. He knows not everyone will go out and buy it on day one, in part because of its unusual design and its focus on work tasks. Its 11-megapixel camera's specs don't stand up to those from Samsung and Apple, and it also doesn't have stereo speakers, making it a poor competitor to top-tier devices with Dolby-enabled stereo speakers marketed as great machines to watch and listen to media with.
Not to mention, at a premium price of $1,399 for the 128GB version, Surface Duo is a hard enough sell on a normal day. But now, it's arriving in the middle of a pandemic that's spurred one of the biggest economic catastrophes of the modern age. Microsoft says it will offer customers a 0% interest payments over 24 months if bought through the company, and it'll be available through AT&T's Next Up upgrade program as well.
Still, the Surface Duo has its doubters, particularly after its $1,399 price was announced Wednesday. "The betting line is the Duo is going to struggle out of the gate," wrote Larry Dignan, Editor-in-Chief of CNET sister site ZDNet. Other tech pundits and influencers tweeted similar opinions, citing price and lack of features as major turnoffs.
"With any luck Duo 2, 3 and 4 will be better," Dignan added. "Assuming it lasts that long."
Panay realizes the Surface Duo will be a challenging sell, and says he'll be happy if the device inspires phones in the same way the Surface's thin design and keyboard cover changed the way companies make PCs and tablets. And to prove it, he says that Microsoft's working with Google to bring the technologies developed for the Surface Duo into Android, so other device makers can build similar gadgets too. That includes things like the software Microsoft created to manage the two screens side by side and to make apps work between them too.
"Products are a reflection of the people that make them," Panay adds. "These products have our soul and love in them. And we hope that you feel it."
When demoing a new device, Microsoft typically invites reporters to its campus in Redmond, Washington, to see an array of prototypes, testing equipment and labs in order to talk through the broader context about its newest gadget.
In 2019, when touring the company's Human Factors Engineering Lab, I stumbled on an Xbox controller that was heavier than the standard ones I'd used. It was larger too, with buttons far enough apart I had to stretch my fingers to touch some of them. Carl Ledbetter, then senior director of design at the lab, said it's meant to help his engineers better understand what it's like for different people to hold the controller. In this case, he said, "You are 5 years old."
The coronavirus pandemic made those fun moments impossible with the Surface Duo.
This time, I'm peering through a webcam into Panay's home, then one of Microsoft's on-campus presentation rooms where the company assures me the employees are safe and following social distancing guidelines. We struggle with technical issues over the Microsoft Teams video chat software, and joke how if anyone should be able to make these conversations work effortlessly, it should be techies like us (Sigh.)
There were no rows of prototypes, but four members of Panay's team took time to explain the process of developing the Surface Duo's slimline, dual-screen design and the tech that made it possible.
Making it thinner meant pushing electronics to the bezels of the screens, for example. But then executives pushed to have those bezels shrunk as well. The two batteries built into Surface Duo are different sizes and behind the two different screens, so Microsoft had to build specialized battery management tech to make sure they'd charge, discharge and generally work together in ways we, the customers, wouldn't notice. And they had to do that with wires snaking between the hinges.
The company spent a lot of time on those hinges, which look like small cuffs connecting the top and bottom of the two screens. They're mostly made of stainless steel on the outside. Inside, they're made from an Iron-Copper powder for the movement mechanism and a Copper-Nickel-based alloy for the wires.
Microsoft says the "dual-axis" hinges are designed to move in 360 degrees. But wherever you stop, they need to allow the screens to sit without wobbling. It takes a lot of work to make a hinge easy to move on purpose, but hard to move by accident.
Microsoft said it's put prototypes through millions of folds, but wouldn't give specifics about how much the hinges can withstand other than to say they'll last "well beyond the lifespan" of the device.
"Miniaturization of the hinge is kind of fundamental," said Pavan Davuluri, a 16-year veteran engineer of Microsoft who also works on the company's Surface products. To make the Surface Duo work, he said Microsoft had to create ever-smaller hinges that would connect to the displays without making them too thick.
There's a suite of gyroscope sensors to identify where the screens are relative to each other, so they can display an app or video the way you're holding the device. There's also software that anticipates when people are shifting between the two touchscreens too, dragging apps from one screen to another with your finger or a pen (which is sold separately for at least $100). The software senses when you're moving a photo or other media between the screens, too.
Microsoft's designers built in visual cues into Android to help you figure things out. You can tell the Surface Duo to save a setting of two apps side by side, so you can easily go back to them together whenever you want. When you do that, the device creates a special home screen icon that shows a split gray square that's a little larger than a folder, with an app on each side.
Finally, Panay's design team worked to make sure the two screens lined up perfectly. To do that, Microsoft created a larger screen under each top and bottom bezel. That way, when the left and right sides of the device are brought together in manufacturing (it's made in China), the viewing area of each screen is shifted slightly up or down so they match. Then, they're calibrated to display near identical light and color as well.
"Displays are like snowflakes, no two displays are ever the same," said Steven Bathiche, a Microsoft technical fellow who focuses on how we interact with our computers as head of Microsoft's Applied Sciences Group. "Every decision, every innovation that we did, down from the aspect ratio to the pixels, was about designing a mobile form that helped you stay in the flow and help you do more."
When he thinks of the design of the two screens, Bathiche said it's an homage to magazines and books, whose 4:3 aspect ratio is similar to the screens on the Surface Duo. But it's different from the 19.5:9 aspect ratio typically found on a modern iPhone , or 19.3:9 on Samsung's recently announced $1,300 Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. It's no wonder then that Amazon's been building a Kindle app for the device that mimics reading a real book.
"We are fundamentally inspired by paper, we're inspired by notebooks, we're inspired by Moleskines and slates," Bathiche said.
How not to fail
Between phone calls with Microsoft, Stein and I discussed aspects of the device that stood out to us. He liked how the prototype Microsoft sent him felt in his hands. "I've been skeptical about dual-screen devices, and I wasn't sure how I would feel about the Surface Duo," he said. And yet, even holding a non-working unit, he said, "I'm already falling in love with the feel of the thing."
I was intrigued by having two apps open on two different screens, something developers working on apps for my Apple iPad Pro just can't seem to get right. I wondered whether the seam down the middle might be annoying, but I got used to the notch on my iPhone, and Galaxy Fold users tell me they hardly notice the crease on their foldable screen.
"It's a specialized device that will find a group of people who will love it to death," said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at Technalysis Research. O'Donnell says he loves last year's Samsung Galaxy Fold he's been using, particularly because the larger screen makes it easier for him to do work, and offers a bigger area to see text.
He hasn't touched the Surface Duo yet, but he's worried the hinge-seam will annoy people where the single screen that's folded on Samsung's device wouldn't. And not to mention, mobile device makers Kyocera and ZTE have both tried building dual-screen phones in the past, only to see them flop.
Still, O'Donnell's ready to give Panay and his hinges the benefit of the doubt.
"Microsoft's smart enough and thinking through enough that it will come up with methods of working that people find attractive," he said.
Panay wants us to know Microsoft didn't arrive at this design by accident. It isn't a resurrection of the failed Courier project either, despite looking similar to Microsoft's prototyped-but-never-released two-screen productivity tablet leaked in 2009. Unlike the Surface Duo, the Courier ran a version of Windows, relied heavily on a pen that people would regularly use to write on the screen.
For Microsoft, the Surface Duo is about trying to strike out with something genuinely new in an age where most phones look the same, and the ones that don't haven't taken off.
For whatever criticisms you level at Microsoft, the Surface Duo is a type of device none of its peers are offering. Whether that's good or bad will be up to you.
"We know the mobile landscape needs to change," Panay said. "There's so much more that can happen."
First published on August 12, 2020 at 4:23 a.m. PT.