Microsoft Surface Duo first impressions: first-gen device, immature vision

Nick Summers, writing for Engadget:

Microsoft’s first Android phone has two 5.6-inch screens that combine into one larger 8.1-inch PixelSense Fusion display. It’s all held together by a “revolutionary 360-degree hinge” that we’re praying keeps out debris a little better than Samsung’s first Galaxy Fold. We already know that the device will be 4.8mm thick in its unfolded form. According to Microsoft, that’ll make it “the thinnest mobile device on the market,” though of course it won’t be quite as sleek when it’s folded (thereby making it roughly 9.6mm thick) in your pocket or bag.

A few years from now, I may read again these lines below and think: “Oh my, I was so wrong.” It would not be the first time. It is a possibility, but I’m quite confident that it won’t be the case. I’ve spent a lot of time today trying to find a good hot take on the new Microsoft Surface Duo: a column that would make me question my doubts, open my mind on the possibilities, and contradict my initial impressions.

This device looks like a prototype, and I believe it should not have been introduced like this in 2020, let alone being launched in September. I think Microsoft knows it, and if there is any indication that they don’t really care, is how they managed to screw up the launch itself. Like I said, I’ve read a dozen of takes on the Duo, from journalists who were at the press event, and I’ve not seen one really worth quoting here more than the others, even those written by experts I truly admire and respect, as if this product was uninspiring (and I think it is).

Microsoft shared a vision in which dual-screen mobile devices have a certain role; not sure if they believe it will be a crucial role, but a role nonetheless. And they introduced this half-baked device to show their commitment to this vision: a very expensive, underpowered tablet — and an Android one at that — that can be folded in half, and can be used as a phone, if the word “phone” means anything at all besides “it has a data connection and fit in your pockets.”

I know the hardware is not the main story here (how can it be right?1), but I’m far from being convinced by the video presentation. I truly believe that Microsoft would consider me as part of its key target audience for this product, and yet, nothing I see excites me, and nothing I watched made me project into a future where these devices are anything more than what were the two-in-one laptops once were (they were supposed to be the next big thing eight years ago.2)

Either Microsoft is terrible at selling its vision and its new hardware (I mean, the iPad Magic Keyboard is so much more inspiring than this and it is just a keyboard), either this vision and this device form factor suck, or I’m already too old to understand anything new with technology. One of the three possibilities, where I only have 33% chance of being wrong I guess? I mean LG’s vision was more exciting than this.

I get it that Microsoft wants to brings something new to the table. They were late for the first few rounds of orders of the mobile revolution which started thirteen years ago, and now they want a seat next to the others. In the early hours of Android, people thought phablets were ridiculous, yet it helped Android gain precious marketshare points when it mattered to convince developper teams to create apps for a platform. Maybe these dual-screen things will succeed like phablets once did, as a niche product were Microsoft can be the reference? Maybe.

Maybe Microsoft is hoping that this device will improve its image as an innovating company? Maybe the whole point of this device is to bring some excitement among the bored Microsoft teams?

One thing is certain though: imagine for one second if Samsung, Google, or Apple unveiled this product, and unveiled it like Microsoft did. Imagine the torrents of crap they would face from the public, from the investors, and from the media. Sure, the hinge looks cool, and this is thin, and sort of new. But this doesn’t translate into a desirable consumer product in my opinion. Last year I expected that the clever 360° hinge, instead of the foldable screen, would allow Microsoft to bring down the price of newly revealed foldables, and make them more durable, but for this price, I’d rather buy an iPad Air plus a very nice smartphone to go with it, and some wireless headphones while I’m at it.

There is this Steve Jobs’s quote that I really like, and I fear that the Surface Duo concept fits right in:

“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology, you can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it. […] What incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer? Not starting with ’let’s sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have, and then how we’re gonna market that.”

Update: I eventually read a hot take that goes beyond the risk-free superficial observations, in this one from Malik Om where we mostly agree about the Duo:

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.

The more I think about the Duo, the more I think of it as a vanity project.

  1. Seriously, how do you type on this thing when you hold it opened as a book? Do you fold it screens-out and type like you would on a phone, or do you turn it sideways? And also, this quote from the Chief Product Officer, Panos Panay, really tells you everything you need to know about Microsoft’s commitment on this hardware: “Cameras will get better with or without us.”↩︎

  2. Some 2-in-1 laptops can be great laptops, the Microsoft Surface Pro for instance, but I don’t know anybody who uses one of those as merely anything else than a regular laptop with a touch screen. Not the tablet/laptop combo once promised.↩︎