When you combine summer news lull, a pandemic, and an announcement of a new device, you get a few hundred news reports and hot-takes. And no, the gizmo in consideration isn’t the iPhone 12. Instead, it is Microsoft’s Surface Duo.
What is Surface Duo? Technically speaking, it is an Android phone that costs $1400 and has an 8.1-inch screen foldable. It looks very nice as expected of Microsoft’s Surface range of offerings. It runs Microsoft’s productivity apps and Android apps. “On paper, this is an intriguing union,” writes Engadget’s Cherylnn Low. “It gives me hope for future dual-screen phones.”
Microsoft’s product office Panos Panay in a press briefing, says Microsoft “built it for people who love Microsoft Office, Teams, Outlook but it’s also for those who use Android apps or mobile apps in general.” Wow, talk about corporate non-speak.
“We see that same opportunity to create something new with Surface Duo – not to reinvent the phone, but to inspire people to rethink how they want to use the device in their pocket,” he writes on Microsoft’s devices blog. It seems like folks at Microsoft wear huge cargo pants. In other words, even Panos (aka Microsoft) can’t decide if this is a phone or a mini-tablet.
Either way, when I look at Surface Duo, I am left scratching my head — who needs this? Are our devices — laptops, tablets, and phones such a problem that we need a foldable hybrid? There is not a single report I have read thus far — and I read most of them — which asks the question: what problem is this solving? For whom? And Why?
I can’t answer those questions, and perhaps some smarter people have an explanation. Carolina Milanesi, a principal analyst at Creative Strategies, writes, “Surface Duo will disappoint anyone who is not willing to invest some time in figuring out what the device can do for them. As it is often the case with a new category of devices, you need to have an exploration period.”
She is generous in her reading of the tea leaves. If I have to spend time exploring and learn how to use a new device, it is a non-starter. Tell me how you are supposed to work on Duo — Microsoft’s best use case? Reading news, books and listening to Spotify — it is not like that is a massive problem on the present generation of devices. It is not as if Microsoft improved the input mechanism radically.
In short, Duo solves some problems for Microsoft, but it is not solving mine — at least it isn’t worth dropping $1400 on this device. As someone who uses Microsoft products for work, their apps work remarkably well on the iPhone and iPad. I use Microsoft Surface Pro to stay informed about Microsoft’s Windows efforts and other changes in the OS, and I believe it is the best Windows machine for knowledge workers. If not for working stiffs/old farts like me, who is the ideal buyer for this product? I am not sure if Surface Duo addresses the younger generation (aka the next generation of computing consumers.)
So, I am going to go out on a limb, but in a year from now, no one will confuse Surface Duo as a product that changed everything.
This kind of mobile device format experimentation from a company that is notoriously behind on mobile should be viewed as a warning sign — we have entered the geriatric phase of mobile phone innovation.
The rectangular glass touch interface has become the default idea of what is a portable device now.
Just before Apple launched its iPhone, companies like Nokia were toying with many different form factors and designs, hoping to keep their sales going. A button-based interface limited those devices. It took a complete rethink of how we interacted with the mobile devices and a radical move of jettisoning the button-based user interfaces to spark the greatest computing revolution.
If we are looking for the post smartphone future, don’t waste your time on Duo, or any of these dual-screen devices. These are retreads of what we already know. They are old vinegar in a new bottle.
Surface Duo is more like Surface Duh!
August 12, 2020. San Francisco