Microsoft should've made a 'normal' Android phone before the Surface Duo

Surface Duo
Surface Duo (Image credit: Windows Central)

Microsoft's October hardware event was all about dual-screen devices. And unexpectedly, that scaled all the way down to a phone-sized device called the Surface Duo — a dual 5.6-inch display smartphone running full-fledged Android.

Finally, a smartphone with Microsoft's interesting hardware backed up by the most popular mobile operating system and the Google Play Store. It's what everyone's been waiting for since Windows Phone was finally put out of its misery. But there's a problem: this dual-screen form factor is pitting Microsoft against a massive uphill battle that it's destined to lose. It's not Microsoft's fault, either — it's just a little too early to this party. And it could've avoided it all by just making a "normal" smartphone with a single display.

Exactly as I pointed out in my LG G8X hands-on, this two-screen form factor with a 360-degree hinge in many ways makes much more sense than the current crop of foldable displays. (And to be clear, the Surface Duo looks dramatically nicer than the G8X.) The screens are actually glass-covered, they can close perfectly flat, and they don't come with compromises in durability. Considering the current state of display technology (and more importantly, display covering technology), the Surface Duo has the "right" design. But that doesn't mean the Duo is destined for success.

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

The biggest problem facing Microsoft is something every other Android phone maker faces: software and app compatibility. Android 10 is the first version of the OS that is actually designed with foldable and dual-screen devices in mind, which is great. But that doesn't mean that apps are — or will be even a year from now when the Duo is expected to go on sale.

All of Microsoft's demonstrations of apps taking advantage of both screens are experiences we've seen plenty of times before with other dual-screen devices. I saw them just a month ago with the G8X. It really isn't hard to get a handful of apps that you make yourself, or made with partners, to work across two screens on an Android device. The interface for moving apps between, and across, two screens is relatively easy to implement. LG did a pretty great job of it even with Android 9.

It's easy to make a handful of apps that work well — the problem comes when you open the Play Store.

The issue is what happens when you get past the 20 apps you've optimized for your device and into the Android app catalogue. One of the biggest benefits of the Surface Duo is that it actually has the Google Play Store and access to its millions of apps — but none of them are designed to actually work on a dual-screen device. It won't take but a couple hours to reach the point where you're just running two Android apps side-by-side with no interaction between the screens, no ability to drag content between, no option for spanning across the two screens, and no concept of splitting content between the screens intelligently.

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

Those are all experiences that have to be designed specifically for a dual-screen device, and the classic "chicken and the egg" problem will keep developers from spending time doing the work. And to be clear, this isn't Microsoft's fault, or Microsoft's problem to fix — this is something that Google and every smartphone manufacturer making these new dual-screen devices has to face.

I applaud Microsoft for continuing to push the envelope in hardware. Its tablets and laptops are incredible pieces of engineering, to say nothing of these just-announced dual-screen devices that take everything to an entirely new level. But for your first Surface phone, it would've been a smarter move to go with a regular, single-screened form factor. Microsoft can bring a ton of value to an Android phone without trying to innovate so much with a new dual-screen design that doesn't have the software and app support to make it work in the real world.

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

This Surface design language, Microsoft hardware quality, and an integrated software experience would make my friends at Windows Central drop their Note 10s like hot potatoes. In a world full of Android phones that are all kinda the same, it wouldn't be hard for Microsoft to really differentiate itself even with a standard rectangular single-screen device. It didn't have to roll out something as ambitious as the Surface Duo to stand out — and it certainly would be more successful commercially.

I actually don't have any problem with the Surface Duo existing as a flex of Microsoft's design muscle. Particularly with such a long lead time (releasing in late 2020), the Duo isn't really a product yet — it could've (and should've) launched in addition to a regular Surface phone. And perhaps Microsoft's expected spring 2020 event will bring that device, providing a Surface hardware experience and Microsoft's apps and services alongside a form factor that doesn't provide so many compromises in user experience.

Andrew Martonik

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

  • naw, normal android phones are a dime a dozen, figuratively speaking, so it would be a hard sell. However a two screen phone is different so people will give it a look and maybe even a second look, if the price is right.
  • Agreed. There'd be nothing special about a single screen Surface.
  • And since it won't be out until late next year most of the apps will be updated by release time.
  • As Andrew stated in his article, there are no guarantees that app developers will be willing to spend time making their apps behave correctly with a device that might not sell.
  • How much different is the development from dual screen to folding screen? I'm guessing more and more companies will go to dual screen over folding just due to the technical issues.
  • Too big for pockets. Won't sell with initial novelty pricing. Especially when the Neo is next to it.
  • It's not that Microsoft wanted to sell smartphones, they wanted a pocketable surface neo. At that size being cellular was an order qualifier. Hence they needed the play store.
  • This may very well be my next workhorse
  • Wow this has me seriously considering walking away from Apple again, I went back because of the watch but watching the video of this has me thinking oh you twit what were you thinking. I should have held on to my Note 9 and waited for this. Guess I will be headed to the Apple store to see if I can return to my Note 9 and return the watch and iPhone
  • You're talking about the apps not being ready yet, but according to the presentation, neither is the Duo. We won't be seeing it until later 2020. Plus they stated that they wanted to get it into the developers' hands ASAP. By the time the Duo is released, there will be plenty of support, thanks to the dual screen devices that are already out there, or coming out very soon.
  • That's assuming developers are interested in wasting time making sure their app will behave for the 200-300 devices that sell.
  • One year from now, that will be enough time to have more apps supporting dual-screen.. and as some others mentioned, just releasing a usual phone will be another windows phone fail...
  • MS isn't a Phone OEM again, at least not yet. This is a Surface tablet, with telephony. The author's premise is flawed. They are fleshing out a full line of PC/tablet reference designs, which they create at a boutique level, unless they DO become a commercial success. These products are supposed to show OEMs what can be done.
  • Sorry try again as they could have done that sooner than now but could care less to be another android phone maker. Author needs to realize that they are targeting a very specific android userbase and not the broader public. This is a branch to get more business users and nothing more. They are focusing on the productivity business user and not your everyday Samsung, Pixel, Motorola joe blow user. This is going to bite into that Galaxy Note userbase that uses windows pc for better flow.
  • I have to agree with your last comment. As a heavy Note user, I'm already looking into this as a Note replacement and also to get away from Samsung products in general. I have 0 qualms with Sammy, but it's nice to see something that's a powerhorse refresher to note users.
  • Add me to this list as well. As a business user that has had every Note except the first and now also the last, this could easily be my next device and would pull me away from the Note line and Samsung. It seems this would take mobile to the next level when it comes to productivity, step aside Samsung Note 11.
  • It will work well with all the apps that matter to the buyer of this phone... People who want an ordinary boring slab can buy a Pixel, Samsung or Huawei, they are well catered for... I will be buying the Duo to complement my Blackberry Key2...
  • If no one makes (and releases) a device like this, apps (and app designs) won't get updated to support dual screens. Bad take, IMO. Kudos to Microsoft for working on and showing this.
  • Author seems to be writing as though the Duo is being released this year, despite Microsoft's explicit statements that it will be late 2020 to give time for devs to prepare for both Neo and Duo.
  • Doesn't Android 10 include things to make this work without developers needing to rewrite their apps? I thought I remember seeing something that that was the case. (not to mention that this device will likely launch with Android 11 given its release timeframe)
  • Does this run Windows and Android together?
  • Now that would be bad ass
  • No - just Android.
  • Imagine this in a Lumia body! I loved my bright yellow Lumia 820, oled screen, removable battery, wireless charging, headphone jack, expandable memory, always on display, and I absolutely loved windows os till it became clear no one was developing for it. Surely the biggest disappointment to many folks who would have stuck with it if it just had the apps. Ah well too many what ifs but....
  • I don't know, Andrew. Sound like you hating a lil bit to me...
  • With reports that Microsoft and Google have worked together to some extent on the Duo, I think there will be more than just Microsoft apps optimized for the dual screen experience. This will be a Google showcase as well, for GSuite apps at the least. A couple of things that could help make, or break the Duo:
    * A straightforward, direct update policy along the lines of OnePlus;
    * Full carrier band support. Part of what killed Windows Phone was a back and forth between carriers for supported devices.
  • I have a different opinion - why do we need another 'normal' Android phone? We have Google, Samsung, OnePlus, Huawei and so on and everybody builds excellent phones. You can install all MS apps from the Play Store. There's nothing to add for Microsoft on that level.
  • In true Microsoft fashion they announce it now for a debut next year. They will talk and talk about it then next year they will delay it 6 months. Then 6 months again. Eventually they will just cancel it. The only thing I like about Microsoft is their Outlook app.
  • Well, it seems like a way better effort than the Galaxy Fold. People hating on this Microsoft effort should watch the old Microsoft Courier Video. Microsoft may have taken a while, but the Idea is thoroughly thought out, so I am expecting a great piece of Hardware. A PC that has Phone Capabilities is what Satella and Microsoft have been saying for years and it makes more sense than the Opposite. I am on board and will be parting with My Fools Money Day One.
  • This is surely the equivalent of the original Nexus program for Google where the plan was to drive the markets into whats possible. By the time this device is available Id expect many more of these in the hands of consumers from the other manufacturers. I for one really like the idea of the Neo and Duo combination. I want something portable for Visual Studio but really like the flexibility of the Duo form factor. Not sure how im mounting a dual screen phone though for Google maps in the car??????
  • That would be nice if they made good Android phone. I would buy it over Google
  • It is easy to make the 20 apps that you have optimized to work well. But nobody got the chance to leak this device, not to talk of trying it. Let's give MS the credit it deserved for a n innovative hardware.
  • No. They shouldn't have. If they did, it would disappear in the sea of already available Android phones. Plus remember, Microsoft already tried their hands at handsets and the Windows Phones unfortunately didn't fare too well. At least, though this move maybe risky, it's bolder with a device that does stand out. The combination of Microsoft and Android is reason enough for a closer look. The design is none too shabby either. Let's see it in real world action and use...
  • A "normal" phone would have been panned. It doesn't matter if have great hardware and software on a normal phone, and throw in a few innovations as well. Samsung and Apple get attention because they are Samsung and Apple, Huawei gets attention because they are always in trouble.
  • I love how Microsoft are pushing the boundaries here and not just with 'phone'. The whole Surface event was great!
  • Perfect phone:
    Lumia body,
    Windows live tile skin over android OS. Sorted! I'd buy one tomorrow.