Last October, during a long day of closed-door sessions and windowless-lab meetings with executives and product managers, the kind of closeness that would now make me shudder in the context of a pandemic, Microsoft revealed its dual-screened phone. The joke at the time was that Microsoft refused to call the Surface Duo a phone, identifying it instead as a brand-new kind of hybrid device, even though it runs Android and makes phone calls.
Update! The company’s still not calling it a phone. But Microsoft has managed to keep its promise of shipping the Surface Duo by the 2020 holiday season. It goes on sale today and will ship early next month.
In a virtual briefing hosted yesterday by Microsoft communications executive Frank Shaw and chief product officer Panos Panay, the duo (pun intended) tossed to colleagues in neighboring rooms and to designers standing six feet apart in a lab, all of whom tried valiantly to make a case for this hybrid product. It is a sleek, gleaming little space-white booklet with a hinge—Panay calls it “one of the sexiest devices we’ve built”—and no doubt strange. It also costs $1,399.
Microsoft, in a relatively short amount of time, has had to reconsider the purpose of the Duo. When the Duo was first revealed to WIRED last October, Panay insisted that it helps him stay “in the flow”—his productivity zone—so many times that I wondered if an internal quota had been set for the phrase. The Duo, like the foldable phones from Samsung and Motorola, was pitched as a product for people on the go. You wouldn’t need to carry a phone and a tablet with you on the train or plane; with a foldable, you have both. And the dual-screened OS? No prob: You could run Outlook and PowerPoint, side by side, because work work work work work.
Now Microsoft is trying to sell an ultraportable two-in-one at a time when many of us are going exactly nowhere. For the digital employee, work has officially been redefined as WFH, and our days are structured by whatever screen we have to use at any given hour. The move from a 6-inch screen to a 13-inch one, and later in the evening to a 50-inch screen or 10-inch one, is the delineator between work and leisure. Now, Microsoft wants to wedge its way into your living room and onto your couch, instead of your train ride and your office.
“The context of these kinds of devices has changed,” says Ben Arnold, consumer technology analyst at the NPD Group, which tracks US sales of electronics. “It’s not the one-handed emailer on the subway anymore. It’s the uber-productive work-from-home worker, and there are some different dimensions to that.”
“At the same time,” Arnold adds, “I look at my screen time, and my screen time has never been higher than the past four months. So maybe there are some synergies there that Microsoft can look into.”
Microsoft, of course, is aware of this. Which is why the company’s virtual briefing on Tuesday morning, which felt just the right amount of preproduced and off the cuff, included references to gaming, baking, and video streaming. Panay, showing off an instance where the Amazon Kindle app runs alongside Microsoft’s OneNote app, talked about how he reads to his daughter from the Duo.
Shilpa Ranganathan, corporate vice president for mobile and cross-device experiences, addressed the pandemic more directly: “One of the things that’s been really stressful for me during quarantine has been the ability to plan meals for my family,” she said. She then demonstrated how she simultaneously uses the Edge browser and Microsoft’s to-do app for meal planning.
“We’ve talked about this quite a bit. We still need our phones. We still need to be mobile,” Panay said. “We know how important it is to engage with your PC right now, but we know there are these transition moments. Being able to walk away from the PC for a little bit and get to my Duo has been critical in this time. Even if I’m going to hang out on the couch or sit outside, I need the real estate. I need the screens.”
Microsoft may very well be able to make the case that two screens are better than a single screen, especially when it comes to switching between apps. But the Duo’s starting price of $1,399 will also turn off many a potential buyer. Early pandemic concerns about supply chain disruptions in the tech industry eventually gave way to daunting concerns about consumer demand. Many millions of people in the US are unemployed, the pandemic is still raging, and, by the way, you can get a pretty good Android phone right now for around $400. At a thousand dollars more than that, the Duo is a tall order.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t something covetable about it. While watching yesterday’s presentation, the gadget reviewer in me couldn’t wait to test one. Microsoft has made a phone-ish (again)! And the company had enough self-awareness to realize any kind of Windows mobile operating system would be working at too much of a deficit, so it turned to Google’s senior vice president of Android, Hiroshi Lockheimer, to help figure out a new version of Android instead.
From the demo, it appears as though both Microsoft and Google’s apps are optimized for the device. Panay showed off a new gesture he called “spanning,” which involves dragging an app to the spine in the center of the device to have it span across both screens. While browsing photos in OneDrive, you can browse a catalog of thumbnails on one side and choose one to display in full-screen mode on the other side. In Google Maps, you can preview a route on one screen and get the turn-by-turn directions on the other. Some apps are awkward across two screens; bizarrely, Panay turned the Duo on its side, Sidekick-style, to browse Instagram. But Microsoft avoided spending too much time on the Duo’s inevitable awkwardness. This was Duo’s moment.
I still have so many unanswered questions about the Duo (ones that will hopefully be answered once we have the chance to review it). Does the device intuitively know when to “span” an app, or will it interpret your swipe as drag-and-drop? Is folding a single front-facing camera back into the rear-camera position as inconvenient as it seems, or does it make so much sense that we’ll realize we’ve become gluttons for camera lenses? Is scrolling Instagram with a spine through the middle of the page as terrible as it appears to be? Sure, you can run Microsoft Teams on the Duo, but what about Zoom?
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More critically, does anyone need an expensive, dual-screened not-a-phone during what we all now uncreatively refer to (with the requisite gesturing) as these times? Or is the Duo somehow the thing we’ve actually been waiting for in the foldable market—its future hinged less on flexible glass and more on the actual duality of the software it runs?
For Microsoft, the Duo has been years in the making and comes after a crushing failure in the mobile phone market. Redmond really, really wants to make this product work. So much so that, in the final video montage of yesterday’s presentation—a short sizzle reel featuring energetic Duo users in their living rooms, on their rooftops, in the streets—Microsoft didn’t even include a shot of the place its premiere software suite is named after: the office.
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