Microsoft fans have been holding out for a 'Surface Phone' for years. Yesterday, it could have almost appeared — if you squinted hard enough — that Microsoft gave it to them. But the Surface Duo is barely a phone at all, and hardly what rendered fantasies have imagined a Microsoft smartphone could be. It's way weirder and way more daring than that. And, counter-intuitively, a strong reason to temper your excitement for Microsoft's big leap into the world of Android.
Mark your calendars for next Christmas
In case you didn't catch that detail yesterday, it will be at least a year until we see the Surface Duo land. Microsoft was merely giving us an early glimpse. And while the company's vision may seem exciting now, it could be pedestrian come that expected “holiday 2020” release date.
The novelty of foldable devices — of which it's fair to call dual-screen phones like the Surface Duo a subset — is simply due to their rarity, as far as I'm concerned. Right now, the form factor is interesting, but the software to actually make use of it isn't really there. And even when it will be, I'm not sure yet that it will be any more useful than prior short-lived smartphone gimmicks like 3D screens or super-modular designs. Like other gimmicks, it also may have worn thin by then, as plenty of OEMs have foldable devices planned for the next year.
It will take at least a year to leave Panay's hand and enter yours — probably more.
This is a tease, nothing more or less. Microsoft has made it clear that this advance look is meant to drum up hype and developer support, and it remains to be seen if the latter will materialize. Without the help of developers targeting apps for its dual-screen vision, Microsoft’s freshman Android effort (if you ignore the Nokia X, and I do) could easily flop, just as its previous Windows Phone aspirations did. Android and the whole world of apps available through the Play Store aren't a silver bullet, and without apps that make use of the dual-screen functionality in a useful way, the Duo will be a gimmick — and almost assuredly an expensive one.
Microsoft has had problems with hardware
Not only will we need to be patient, but there's also plenty of reason to think it might take Microsoft more than one try to get the Surface Duo right — assuming the market is forgiving enough to allow more than one swing at bat.
Remember the early Surface PC hardware, the repeated bugs and issues that plagued Surface Books and even recent Surface Pros? As a Surface Go owner, I've just come to accept being randomly unable to change my brightness, hanging on reboot, and inconsistencies like flickering backlighting and keyboard connection issues. It's not that big of a deal for me, the Go is a cheap supplementary device that lives alongside my big-boy laptop. But I can't accept issues like that (or worse) when it comes to the phone that lives in my pocket every day.
This is a company that lost a Consumer Reports recommendation in 2017 over Surface reliability concerns. That’s the sort of thing that absolutely won’t fly in a phone. Microsoft’s clearly been working on its new Android phone for a while, giving it some time to iron issues out, but plenty of things can change in a year — and that’s assuming the company doesn’t decide to spend a bit longer on things.
With how long it took Microsoft to get the Surface line “right,” there's definitely reason to be concerned about the Surface Duo.
Even when it lands, it won’t be for you
Lastly — and I think this is going to be the biggest hurdle for the phone — even if Microsoft gets its vision perfect when it finally does land, the Surface Duo clearly isn’t made for the general consumer. This isn't the "Surface Phone" folks have been imagining for years.
Everything Microsoft's charismatic chief product officer Panos Panay said during the event points at it being a tool for productivity. Microsoft wants people to do work on this phone, it's all about "how productive you can be on it," in Panay's words, later repeating that "people need to use their phones to be more productive." Microsoft didn't spend any time talking about how great it is to watch videos or listen to music or attend to social media on its phone, as you might hear at a Samsung event. Instead, we heard about writing emails across devices, or looking up information in the middle of a video meeting. "We absolutely know, scientifically, that you will be more productive on two screens." He didn't say "productive" three times in the space of a few minutes for nothing.
In a way, the Surface Duo doesn't even seem like a phone — or, at least, it's not "just" a phone. Speaking to The Verge, Panay said, "you say, ‘well, smartphone.’ I don’t even know what that means... The minute you put it in a box, I think you’re lost." This dual-display folding device probably isn't the dream of a Surface phone most fans had, because they wanted something that was more plainly a phone, and the Surface Duo will exist outside that sort of restrictive label.
That seam is a feature that separates your workspace for better "flow," as far as Microsoft is concerned.
That folding design doesn’t give you a bigger display for things like media, or it wouldn’t have a seam running down the middle of it — in fact, Microsoft highlighted that as a feature. This is for folks wanting a 2020 Blackberry, sans keyboard; the dream of those that carry an iPad around to edit or write a report from the back of an Uber or Lyft; the single-device replacement for those that obsess over tiny laptops, DeX, and the idea of mobile convergence. Put lightly, that’s not most people, and it's probably not you.
So before you hype yourself up too much over Microsoft’s Surface Duo, keep in mind the wait, temper your expectations, and think about how it's meant to be used. This isn't the Surface Phone you were hoping for — for some of us, it could be better.