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Microsoft doesn't need to give Android fans good reasons for the Surface Duo's existence

Surface Duo
Surface Duo (Image credit: Microsoft)

This is a guest post by Juan Carlos Bagnell of SomeGadgetGuy. It is also cross-posted on his website, SomeGadgetGuy.com

I'm sure tech fans are well familiar with the happenings at Microsoft. Android enthusiasts are craving new form factors and new features. I still chat on the regular with former Window Phone fans still hurting from that canceled experiment. There's a clear interest floating through various gadget communities, even without Microsoft "leaking" or posturing around the web. Maybe we can chalk part of the silence up to a global pandemic?

The concern for this silence, a product like the Surface Duo needs to be visible. A bold experiment delivered in obscurity is a tragic mistake. If consumers don't understand who this device is made for, then it will likely fall into the hands of a select few (with the money to test drive it), who will likely pan it for being unfamiliar. The Surface Duo looks to be a specific solution, for a specific consumer, and follows in the footsteps of Surface tablets and laptops.

The success or failure of the Surface line will be dictated by people who own Surfaces.

Microsoft has grown up as a software company. Satya Nadella made big promises on the future of Microsoft, focusing on services and the cloud. It was a risky change, but one showing clear advantages today. Any computer can be a platform for Microsoft services. If Windows 10 isn't ready to be used in a smaller form factor, then Android is an easy substitute. Axing the Windows Phone team years ago meant a ton of developer talent was pointed directly at iOS and Android.

The success or failure of the Surface line will be dictated by people who own Surfaces.

How better to improve Microsoft services on Android than to build a bleeding-edge Android-powered device?

We should be a little concerned about some of the internal team arrangements, how the Movial transition likely slowed some of the development, but concerns are currently speculation. The recent move bringing that team under closer collaboration, and to loosely discuss development on Surface Duo 2, were the right moves to make. Timing is difficult. Absorbing outside developers is difficult. None of this is easy. It's less a worrying sign WHEN they make a transition like this, and more an encouraging sign to see a company adapt to issues in their product development chain.

Surface Duo

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

We're going to see a number of armchair quarterbacks loudly chatting up what Microsoft should've done to be successful. In fact, I'm writing this in response to Andrew Martonik's assertion that Microsoft shouldn't be given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to making an ambitious Android phone. It's a common refrain — Microsoft should've made a "normal" phone first before the grand Surface Duo experiment. How can Microsoft figure out all the little quirks of Android unless they make a "regular" phone first?

It's my hypothesis that Microsoft isn't interested in making an Android phone. Microsoft wants to make a smaller Surface.

There are no "basics" to figure out. There is no agreed-upon aesthetic for a dual-screen or foldable phone. We are in uncharted territory. Now is the perfect time for Microsoft to step back into the mobile hardware landscape.

Microsoft isn't interested in making an Android phone. It wants to make a smaller Surface.

Had Microsoft opted for a normal phone, we know how it would have been received. They would have accrued some praise for a couple of features. They've earned some skepticism for how they handled Windows Phone and Nokia, so numerous editorials would hinge on the emotional baggage associated with the Ballmer era.

The "normal" phone would have been picked apart. If it had too many unfamiliar features, those features would have been called gimmicks. If it didn't have enough "new" built-in, the phone would have been panned for not being original enough. Tech reviewers at the end of this dance would be all-too-happy to share the numerous reasons why you shouldn't buy the phone.

Building a "normal" phone, Microsoft would not have learned what they needed to learn to make a pocket-sized Surface. If you want to make a Surface, you need to make a Surface.

This seems to be one of the emotional stumbling blocks for Android enthusiasts. Just because a company uses Android, doesn't mean they want to make an Android device.

A less successful version of that idea would be Blackberry. DTEK, KEYOne, and KEY2 benefitted from a familiar Android UI, but the OS was heavily customized and patched to deliver a Blackberry experience focused on security. Android fans bristled at a lack of updates (which likely didn't contribute much to the security conversation, considering the heavy customizations), but Blackberry fans "got it". There just weren't enough of those Blackberry fans left to sustain those differences.

A more successful example might be Amazon Fire tablets. Amazon has the resources to build an entire ecosystem and app store, but they still didn't code their own operating system from scratch.

The longer we wait for the Surface Duo, the more anxious we should get. That's understandable. Launching a phone is a ridiculously complicated dance, so intricate it is incredible that any product makes it to consumers. The phone market is also ruthlessly fast. Microsoft's experiences with laptops and tablets look leisurely by comparison.

For the first Surface phone though, it's more important to get it right than to get it out "on time". There is no set schedule for such an important release. If Microsoft should learn anything from the established players in the Android ecosystem, you shouldn't rush a folding phone to market. Samsung can weather that storm. Microsoft can't.

Surface Duo

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

The Surface needs to arrive as polished as Microsoft can make it. It needs to arrive with a premium price tag regardless of the older specs inside. Microsoft can't start the conversation on this product line devaluing the Surface brand just because Android enthusiasts are used to bargain-basement prices on slightly older chipsets.

It's largely irrelevant looking at Android consumer expectations for what makes a "good" Android phone. The same as it was largely irrelevant asking Dell customers what they wanted in a touchscreen portable slate PC with a detachable keyboard back in 2012. Microsoft has a vision for what the future of their services should resemble. The best way to showcase that vision is to build some hardware.

Most people don't care whether the Surface Duo has top-of-the-line specs because they trust Microsoft to do more with less.

Android fans will obsess over specs and bullet points, and complain about it being too expensive (when we don't know yet how much it will cost), but the reality is, the Surface Duo isn't made for high-performance Android enthusiasts.

The Surface line does not exist to completely displace the Windows laptop ecosystem. In fact, Surface is a fairly conservative collection when you look at the entirety of the PC experience. It stands as a Microsoft flavor, not the only flavor.

The individual interested in a Surface Duo might not care if it has the most powerful CPU, or the most RAM. They probably care that the phone is machined to resemble their Surface Pro, that their favorite services migrate well, and that they can use the same stylus on both devices.

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The hypothetical Surface Duo owner probably isn't tracking what phone maintains the highest FPS in gaming benchmarks, but they might be interested in a first-party solution for Microsoft Game Pass and xCloud. Beefy internals might not be as critical when using services offloaded to servers.

The camera will be touted as another potential deal-breaker. We could draw some parallels with BlackBerry here again, where the KEY cameras were better than the moaning might have indicated, but the hype on mobile cameras doesn't seem to extend far outside enthusiast circles. "Acceptable" camera quality is a wide target, and Android fans seem to fixate on a narrow view of what makes a camera "worth it". A significant swath of consumers worldwide buy different products, at different price points, with different pros and cons. Those consumers seem to live with their phones just fine, even if the cameras onboard aren't always the Android Enthusiast Approved Best Cameras™.

While the Surface Duo camera specs might not be the most exciting, it's another area where "wait and see" should be the correct tactic. How a phone uses a camera sensor is just as important as what sensor is inside. Even as a worst-case example, however, the Surface Duo seems to be built around a future of cloud data and socially distant conference calls. The first generation of this experiment might only need to do that well. Time will tell.

Microsoft Surface Pro 7

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

We can complain about higher prices, but the machining and engineering here matter as much or more than the megapickles and giggleflips. We saw this same debate in a more limited way back in the dark days of Windows RT. The Surface 2 versus the Lumia 2520. Specs nerds complained about the higher price of the Surface 2, the two tablets had roughly comparable internals, but were all too happy to ignore the significantly more expensive build materials employed.

The Surface Duo will fall prey to similar criticisms, as folks conveniently ignore that we've never gotten a wraparound hinge right on a pocket computer. Recently I spoke with TCL executives about folding phones, where they candidly discussed challenges. A folding OLED isn't actually that difficult. But how a phone folds is incredibly difficult. Samsung's experiences here would verify that sentiment. Moving parts on a durable companion gadget are extremely difficult to do well.

This will be the first full-time dual screen with active pen support. The battery life might be bad, it might be good. We can guess, but we don't know that yet. It's not to excuse the phone before it launches, but we shouldn't condemn it, either. Until it's in our hands, it is acceptable to say "I don't know".

What remains is a promise. Can Microsoft deliver on a promise?

A lot of the initial criticisms levied against the Surface Duo ring hauntingly familiar to the jabs poked at the original Surface Pro. Microsoft iterated, improved, and by the Surface Pro 3 we saw a shift in the conversation. Consumers were interested in a product that showed consistency in the market. Because consumers were interested, the tone in reviews evolved.

Microsoft's history with phones is obnoxiously pockmarked. Starts and stops interrupted any potential for consumers to get a clear handle on what made a Microsoft solution different from the competition. By extending the Surface brand to a mobile product, it's hopefully a sign that this is a long-term strategy, like the original Surface.

Maybe Android enthusiasts can benefit from a slower and more carefully considered development pace. Maybe we've been overbuying compute power for years now. Maybe we don't need bleeding-edge specs swapped out every year at higher and higher component costs. Maybe we'd benefit from competing options outside our "normal" expectations.

If Microsoft has learned anything about hardware, we should hope they've learned that a product line cared for over time will succeed. We should hope they aren't hinging all of their future resources on the success of a single product launch. If expectations are managed properly on generation one, then we'll get a path to generation three that makes sense for consumers outside the tech review/tech entertainment space.

Microsoft doesn't need Android fan validation today. Microsoft needs to make the best Surface they can, then show us they can make a better one after that.

Author: Juan Pic

Formerly a workstation and server specialist working on a DOE technology contract, Juan Carlos Bagnell is a tech pundit fixated on competition in the consumer electronics space. You can catch more of his tech ramblings on SomeGadgetGuy.com and the Newegg YouTube channel.

20 Comments
  • MY only problem with Microsoft Duo on Android is that it is simply a phone form factor. Period. As a former Windows Phone and still current Windows Mobile user who had been using for almost a year both an iOS device and an Android one on iOS 12 and 13, Android 9 and 10 respectively, all I can see in Duo, is that being an Android device, does not bring any of the advantages that Windows mobiles had, nor any that current Surface devices have running Windows 10. It is an Android experience on a Surface device. Nothing more. As such there are three different user sets Microsoft needs to address here. Try to convince PC users, that Android is just as good as Windows 10, convincing Android users that Surface devices are premium, and convince Apple users that Android is just fine.
  • "It is an Android experience on a Surface device. Nothing more. " In the back of my mind I wonder if this isn't the point. If there is a distant "trojan horse" approach here. If MS had a deep enough UI on this device, would you know the difference (let's discount apps for the moment for my argument) if it was Android or Windows running the show behind the scenes? In other words, outside of apps, could this be a mechanism to eventually have the same UI on top of multiple OSs (Android and Windows)? I mean Nadella has said in multiple interviews that Windows is just a part of the stack now. It's not an either or requirement and the future of pretty much any major OS is to be hardware agnostic. What if MS resumed its emulation initiatives? I guess what I'm saying is, if the UI is what people are used to using, they may never notice or care which OS is running it.
  • I am an ex Windows Phone/Mobile user who absolutely loved everything about that experience. I am also a Surface owner and fan. I have been very sceptical of the Duo since we have known about it however with the way things are now with people working from home, needing a couple of screens at the same time, I think now is the perfect time for this type of device. I know that it would be wonderful for my job where I need to be on a zoom call on 1 screen and auditing docs on the other. Could be a game changer.
  • Can someone post this article on Windows Central as well since Andrew’s article was cross posted to Windows Central?
  • This entire article reeks of insecurity. It's like he's personally offended that people would dare criticize his beloved Microsoft. Additionally, the writer's tone is talking down to what he calls "Android Fans", like it's some monolithic group that only cares about Android phones. Most of us are actually just fans of tech in general. Many of us use and love Microsoft products as well as Google, Apple, Samsung, and anything else. Now to address the actual point the article is trying to make (if you can even discern a point from this rambling). "Microsoft doesn't need to give Android fans good reasons for Surface Duo's existence". This is a straw man argument if I ever heard one! No one is saying they have to justify the products existence. If fact, the article that this one is a direct response to doesn't say that at all. Andrew was simply pointing out that there is no reason to think this device will actually be any good. That shouldn't even be a controversial opinion. A first generation product as ambitious as this is not going to get most things right. The writer even acknowledges this when stating that the Surface wasn't that great until gen 3. No one expected the Galaxy Fold to be good in the first iteration and no one expects the Surface Duo to be good in the first iteration. But given a few generations these products might end up being really great (think Galaxy Note). Andrew's article was spot on in it's point (and he made said point much more elegantly and concisely than this drivel ). If the Duo doesn't get the basics of being a phone right then the rest doesn't matter (as far being a device that people should actually buy). Because if the smartphone basics are bad then you're not going to want to carry this in your pocket (that's exactly where Blackberry failed). Can you really imagine someone carrying this bulky thing AND another phone around all the time? Because that is likely what you'll need to do. If you're not going to carry this around and have it function as your primary phone then what is its purpose? If it's a secondary device you pull out of your bag when you need it you're just going to reach for a real laptop every time. I want to end this by saying that am really excited about this device. The form factor is super interesting and I'm sure the build quality will be excellent. And I will reserve final judgement until it is actually released. But please don't sh*t on people for assuming it's not going to be a good phone in it's first iteration. Because it likely won't be.
  • Microsoft has gone to lengths to say it is not a phone, and they will not market it as such, yet the media keep calling it such. It's a small form factor dual screen tablet, with wireless connectivity. It's also more targeted at business than consumers.
  • If that is the case, then I would ask what business person needs this? They are already going to have a smartphone and a laptop. If this can't replace one of those then what is it for?
  • "They are already going to have a smartphone and a laptop. If this can't replace one of those then what is it for?" Laptops are too big and do not have their own connectivity. Smartphones are too small. Ages ago you could have said "what about tablets?" Well the Galaxy Note will have ALMOST a 7' screen like the Nexus 7 (even if the aspect ratio is different) and there are actually some phones sold in China with screens exceeding 7'. Also, the iPad Pro's 12.5' is bigger than their old 12' MacBook! In any case, you can't put a laptop or tablet in your pocket or purse. This device, you can.
  • Read my comment below, I outline why its the perfect device for business people.
  • I've been on Android since MS pulled the plug on WinMo. TBH, the only advantage I see from Android is the app ecosystem. Everything else I could do with my Windows Mobile. However, from the perspective of a Windows Business PowerUser, the use cases for Android have always been incongruent with that of a heavy Windows user - especially where uses are for content creation rather than consumption. Would I want to quickly access a Word or Excel doc on an Android phone while in a meeting? Sure. Would I ever want to take notes on one using OneNote - NEVER!
    Is accessing and responding to Business emails, while embedding links to Business services like SharePoint or PowerBI easy on Android? Heck no! Folks like me would rather wait to get to a desk or free counter, whip out a proper Windows device, and then do the heavy lifting that's needed. Now THAT's a wasted opportunity. Something that Continuum tried to change, but clearly fell short of achieving. Could that be something that MS can achieve two years after, having fiddled with Services connectivity on Android, and now going in full on Android development? The Business World relies on the MS ecosystem. I couldn't care less about SnapBook or TwitterTok - and a lot of people dual task with both a business and personal phone anyway to keep these worlds separate (as they should!) With WinMo, I could enjoy both use cases them in the same device. Launcher tries to bridge the gaps, but it has always fallen short and is at best clunky. The gaps are still more than the benefits, and that's why people simply resort to accessing singular apps (Outlook) instead of unified app services (offered by Launcher). To date, windows Services have always functioned as guests in an Android-controlled system. It's limited as it has to play nice with what Android allows it to do - which is basic compared to what Windows could. And it would serve MS well to attack this limitation as fast as it can, if it's to deliver on its promises. Offer the flexibility of having a consumer-friendly device, and the user experience and true usability that's more "native" to Microsoft than Android or IOS. I'm still very skeptical about Duo myself. The dual screen form factor isn't what I'm most interested in, tbh. It's the return of the productivity use case, and the promise of returning to the true multitasking capability that WinMo offered that I'm most interested in. If Microsoft is truly re-orging to double-down on building a MS-specific Android development branch, then that's what I care most about. App ecosystem and dual-screen foo foo are just secondary perks. Nothing new these days is truly "game-changing". Good thing for Microsoft, all they need to do is deliver on a promise made when they announced Continuum five years ago. As the author alluded to, if this first iteration of Duo helps to refocus Microsoft and give it momentum for better future products and services, then perhaps that's a greater good than having a new toy that does the same little things my others already do. Else, it's back to waiting. Hoping that maybe Win10x is better. If it even happens.
  • Absolutely excited about this form factor ! I am looking forward to see reviews when the device goes in the market and I will seriously consider buying it!
  • I agree with the writer. Morever, I say that Pixel fans who bash this device for being underpowered and too expensive are raging hypocrites. Especially since Pixel fans are notorious for A) praising the Pixel and bashing every other Android phone and B) liking the Pixel only because it represents Google's attempts to emulate the iPhone, which are also overpriced and - until Apple started designing the Ax series for future laptops rather than smartphones and tablets - underpowered. Samsung owes their market position in no small part to a bunch of ads lambasting Apple fans for paying outrageous prices for 4' screens, dual core processors, 512 MB-1GB of RAM and tiny batteries several years back. These same people knocking the Duo for the Snapdragon 855 aren't going to have any problem gushing with praise over the Pixel and its 765G, even though it is going to cost A LOT more than other phones that are going to have that same mid-range processor! The Samsung A71 may well be $450 by the time the Pixel 5 finally comes out, and there are going to be cheaper Motorola and Nokia phones too! Another thing: what has been the biggest drawback on Android devices that even diehard Android fans admit? It has never been the specs. It has never been the UI or form factor. It has been the SOFTWARE. The UI and the apps. So you mean the same people who trashed TouchWiz forever - because Samsung was actually trying to overcome the UI shortcomings that plagued Google Android since Honeycomb! - and now dismiss LG, Motorola and a bunch of other phones because they hate the UI aren't even going to give Microsoft a chance to do better? Especially considering that Microsoft and Google have worked together on this phone? Google has put a lot of work into ALL the dual screen devices: Microsoft's, Samsung's and Motorola's. Google sees dual screen devices as a real opportunity. Which means we might well see a ChromeOS device like this in a year or two. And as much as I prefer Google to Microsoft, can we admit that ChromeOS only went from being a marketplace failure with mostly terrible products to being a (qualified) success ... when they began copying the Surface. Of course, I say that the Surface itself copied what Android tablets were doing, but none of those tablets came from Google. They came from Samsung, LG, Asus and the other OEMs whose products this site and the other Android sites bashed for terrible software and UX/UI. Before Google decided to embark in an experiment by having Asus copy the Surface and make a 2-in-1, you know what Google thought innovation was? The Chromebit. Remember that? Of course you don't. I will likely not buy this device - I am waiting for a Galaxy Note with an INTEGRATED modem instead - but I think that this device will actually make Android software and UX/UI better. And if that happens it will very much be a success in its own right.
  • I love this article. This is so true. As I am someone who is tying to run a business, I'm constantly going between phone to tablet to computer. I start an email on the computer, take a picture with my phone, then email it to myself only to finish it on my computer. Daily I am on video calls and need to recall information I have to look up, while using my phone. I also jump from app to app constantly, this info to that spreadsheet, that pic to powerpoint etc. This is the device I need. I don't take pics for photography, as most people don't. I don't need NFC, most of my purchases are online anyway. At the gas pump, I use a store card to get points, so I may as well swipe a credit card. The wireless charging is another thing, I haven't plugged my phone in in years. I am OK with the 855 chip, I have the note9 which uses the 845, so its still an upgrade for me. I am ready for this device now!! (I also own and use a surface) I want a device I can use as a computer. I want to start something on my phone, then plug my phone into a monitor so I can see it better, and use a mouse and keyboard.
  • 'improve Microsoft services on Android' Maybe we're just not interested in Microsoft services, but in an alternative OS to Android or iOS, preferably Windows...
  • Jesús christ! Someone got $$ to vomit put all this surface duo diarrea! Is like a huge advertising statement...trying to justify the existence of such a crappy idea. Then if the gibberish doest get you it's "a select few" that will deserve and acknowledge the need of such an exquisite device... Come on!
    It's not a surface... It's an android phone. You can optimize Ms office and word how you want but it's the LG8 with the dual flip screen all over again! Plus seems wider shorter and wider than phones these days which probably will be uncomfortable to hold.
    Do I want one? Of course.. But I would not pay for it. Glad it has the pen support but for Android I'd prefer a Fold, a Note or hopefully a fold with an s-pen (when they figure it out)
  • Somewhere well over $1000 for another device because it is just too inconvenient to open up a laptop? Really? I don't see a serious market for this device, or businesses willing to throw money at it... For what, two years of updates? The first Gen of any new tech is something to always avoid.
  • Looks interesting. Definitely consider it an option. With the right launch, support, OS and app tweaks, could be a game changer. For those that are concerned about OS experience, I've used SquareHome since leaving WP, and it does a phenomenal job at replicating a WP experience and Live Tiles. I'll be curious to see how (or if) it works on a dual screen device.
  • I'm really interested in this device though considering I got burned on surface rt I'm little hesitant for 1st gen product. But this is something new at least, Microsoft has put alot of effort on dual screen features. And it accomplishes having more screen real estate without durability concerns of flexible oled folding phones. I watched the sdk kit emulator demo, besides edge, think I use most of the Microsoft services already. One drive, one note, Bing. Also interchange them with the Google equilavents. I had a surface pro 3 and loved it, have a surface book now. A surface phone interests me, especially with pen support. Feel like I wouldn't need a tablet with this. I think they'll launch it within next 2 months but time will tell.
  • I bought a Surface RT and many Windows Phones back in the days. And Microsoft pulled out of all. So I guess im very skeptical to buy anything Microsoft stuff now unless its a traditional PC or a laptop. Im not sure how commited they are on this device or if it be a one time experiment like the Cortana smart speaker? I think Microsoft could adopt the Nokia X program that was a Android attempt with Microsoft apps and was a limited succés in some countries, even outsold Windows Phone phones. But Nadella shut that down to. And that was Nokia/Microsoft best shot to be relevant in the mobile space in perspective.
    They lost some years with that move. So before I invest my money in anything Microsoft related now I will wait and se how it goes first.
  • Wait! I could have an instant-on device with phone and pen support that will fit into a jacket pocket or - maybe - a murse (not that I would EVER carry a murse - at least not one that didn't have a Griffin-adorned seatbelt buckle). And I wouldn't have to lug my laptop around all the time? If I can present from it, manage my email, Teams and schedule? I'm in. Is it going to be my best camera that I take on bike rides? No. Is it going to by my MQA-compatible source for Tidal goodness? No. But, if it means I can spend the day in the city, visiting clients - and not have to lug a bag? I'm in!