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 LGs 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.

Back to busyness

Today, I came across this interesting blog post by Carl Barenbrug, titled Saved Time. He writes:

In recent months, you might have found yourself with an abundance of time that has come to you unexpectedly. Time saved by working from home instead of commuting. A pared down social life instead of filling up your calendar with events. Fewer commitments. Less chaos. But how are you spending all this saved time? With all this time you have back, as temporary as it may be, will you choose to spend it on things that are truly important to you?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last couple of days: the lockdown in France, the end of it, the new rules, the new behaviours: How did I spend my saved time?

During the first few weeks of lockdown, mid-March to end of April, I have been very busy. My work days were full1, the wife and I took the time to cook a lot of delicious meals, I watched a lot of new shows and movies I hadn’t seen before, and I tweaked a lot of things on this blog. We could hear all the birds sing in the air-pollution-free Paris, and Twitter felt exciting again. Times were in many ways interesting, and lockdown felt a little like an adventure. A sad, boring, dull adventure, but an adventure nonetheless.

The only true casualties among my habits were music and podcasts. Without a commute to wear my earphones, I felt that time — one hour per day — was actually taken away from me, rather that given back. Not that I enjoyed commuting everyday in the Parisian métro, but I think podcasts in particular were designed for this moment of the day, in length, format, concept. Without commute, podcasts feel like pretentious on-demand radio don’t they?

Since May, the interesting part of this abnormal situation has vanished. The related sense of adventure too. During this new normal period, I became less and less productive. My work load was the same, but my energy levels were empty at the end of the day and I stopped writing, stopped reading. I only watched things I’ve already seen before, looking for comfort and reassuring familiarities.

As the lockdown ended, and we were able to walk around again, I could finally listen to music again properly. Not new music, but the music I missed the most, the music I was already familiar with. I didn’t miss podcasts so much. Meanwhile, traffic jams were back in Paris, we couldn’t hear the birds from our windows anymore, and Twitter felt like an empty space again.

Today, I look at all the books I didn’t read. I browse through all the shows I didn’t watch, and I haven’t opened my podcast app in weeks. I subscribed to Skillshare back in March thinking it would be a good use of my extra time: I haven’t watched one minute of it.

What did I do with all this time given to me this year? Like Carl writes:

There’s no correct way to spend your time. Or more specifically—free time. You might choose to read, write, exercise, explore nature, volunteer, watch TV, listen to music, listen to podcasts, learn about topics that interest you, cook, clean, repair things, build things, or maybe you choose to slow down and simply do nothing.

Exactly. I did nothing special, but I don’t feel like this time was wasted at all. All this saved time was not spent right away on something else, but saved for later, sort of.2

2020 has gave me a lot of time to do things, but it also has given me a chance to not do things, it has given me the opportunity to think, and in many ways it gave me space to know myself better.

While doing nothing, I never felt so busy.

  1. Since March, I’ve been working from home, and I will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

  2. Unlike money, time cannot be saved for later, it has to be spent right away. So much for the Time is money bullcrap.

“You should not undermine how quickly people can change their ideas”

Must-watch video by Double Down News, featuring writer and stylist Ayishat Akanbi, talking about cancel culture.”

I’ve been lucky to be a Twitter follower of Akanbi for quite a while now, and her thoughts and tweets are very well written and full of wisdom. Considering all of the things happening in the world and in our Twitter timelines, it is a true breath of fresh air to read her words.

This video doesn’t disappoint either: she manages to go straight to the point and make it clear on a very difficult topic. Highly recommended.

Scary heatwave in Siberia is scary

Damian Carrington — environmental editor for The Guardian — writes, in a piece aptly titled Climate crisis: alarm at record-breaking heatwave in Siberia:

Russian towns in the Arctic circle have recorded extraordinary temperatures, with Nizhnyaya Pesha hitting 30 °C on 9 June and Khatanga, which usually has daytime temperatures of around 0 °C at this time of year, hitting 25 °C on 22 May. The previous record was 12 °C.

[…] Martin Stendel, of the Danish Meteorological Institute, said the abnormal May temperatures seen in north-west Siberia would be likely to happen just once in 100,000 years without human-caused global heating.

If climate change doesn’t scare you yet, well, I admire your optimism.

Missing the point reviewing the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

Samuel Gibbs used the latest foldable phone from Samsung for four months, and today published a second review. Despite being short by today’s standards when it comes to reviews — around 800 words — I found that two things were especially worth mentioning.

First, the hardware seems to be excellent and quite durable. It should not come as a surprise that Samsung makes great pieces of hardware, especially great high-end phones.1 In the foldable devices area though, their reputation suffered quite a lot with the Galaxy Fold. It is therefore impressive to see that they managed to crack to code — and not the screen — on their second-only try.

Second, I think it is disappointing to not see Gibbs give more details on how it is to use the phone, you know that thing you do with yours? What does it mean to have a folding device in terms of checking your messages and emails? Putting it in a pocket a million times a day? How often do you really need to open and close it? I am convinced that the answers to these questions are what people need to know about a folding phone, and something we don’t really learn from this review.

The durability after only four months should not — in a perfect world — be a concern, not to the point of focusing a reviews on it anyway. Especially considering that during these last four months, people were safely stuck at home half of the time. I get that we don’t live in a perfect world, and that people may only have questions about the durability of such innovative phones, especially at that price, but it feels like a missed opportunity.

A few months ago, this is what I wrote about foldable phones like the Galaxy Z Flip, or the Motorola Razr:

If you thought first generations of Face ID and under-the-screen fingerprint sensors were slow, think about having to physically unfold a device every time you want to take a quick photo, reply to a message, or maybe just glance at your list of groceries.

And below are the only three sentences — four lines — where Gibbs writes about this matter:

I can open the phone with one hand, but rarely do.

So most of the time two hands are needed to open it?

Snapping the phone shut to end calls is very satisfying.

Oh damn, I did not know about the main key selling point.

The notification panel on the outside is enough to show me there’s something important waiting or the time, but I wish it was slightly longer so scrolling text was easier to read.

Sounds to me like a terrible experience for a phone that cost twice as much as a regular Samsung Galaxy S20, but it shows the time so I guess everything is forgiven.

On an average day, we unlock our phones more than a hundred times. Maybe we do it less often while using these devices, but the folding/unfolding part of the story is barely something to be overlooked, yet it is barely mentioned in the review. Too bad it focused solely on durability and not user experience; not unlike when the first iPhone reviewers where complaining about the lack of a physical keyboard or the lack of Flash.

  1. When they are not catching fire that is.

“I would love to ignore racism and focus all my attention on climate. But I can’t.”

Great read from Ayana Elizabeth Johnson on The Washington Post. Johnson is, among other things, a marine biologist, and it happens that I started to follow her just a few days ago mostly for that reason.1

She writes:

Toni Morrison said it best, in a 1975 speech: The very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” As a marine biologist and policy nerd, building community around climate solutions is my life’s work. But I’m also a black person in the United States of America. I work on one existential crisis, but these days I can’t concentrate because of another.

There are so many good bits on this piece that I could have quoted every paragraph.

  1. I studied marine biology back in 2004-2005 at the university of Heriot-Watt, Edinburgh, believe it or not.

Beautiful illustrations and a peculiar Instagram description

Earlier today, my Twitter pal1 Daniel Benneworth-Gray tweeted this excellent story on the New York Times Magazine, by Claudia Rankine: I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked. Before I had the chance to read it, he rightfully praised the illustrations made for the article by Nabeejah Al-Ghadban, which immediately got me curious about what other works had been done before by this artist, which brought me to Al-Ghadban’s website. Besides the usual-for-an-illustrator Portfolio and Biography pages, there is also an unusual Collage page, which consists of a collection of illustrations seemingly not featured on the portfolio. This is how she describes it on top of the page:

An experimental feed: often where instant thoughts, ghosts, and ideas materialize, and co-exist through back and forth visits in time and medium; where the hand occasionally becomes illogical, nonsensical.

In other words: Instagram.

I love this. It reads like the pitch Instagram founders gave to VC funds in an awesome, alternate universe.

  1. We need a word for this kind of acquaintances.

UK National Parks photography competition shortlist

A few weeks ago, The Guardian shared a few entrants of the UK National Parks and Campaign for National Parks photography competition, and I believe that all of these pictures are gorgeous. My favourite is the one of Wistman’s Wood in Dartmoor, by the photographer Debra Smitham : I find it has some kind of a Hound of the Baskervilless vibe that I have loved since I was a kid.

The Guardian published those pictures on the 13th of March, which is the day I started working from home, a few days before the official confinement measures here in France. After now almost three months stuck in Paris, I cannot wait to rediscover nature with my own eyes this summer, and appreciate the beauty and peace of it all. The year 2020 as it is can surely use more of it.

When your PR services appear to be like the devices you sell: refurbished

Chris O’Brian, quoting refurbished gadgets company Back Market’s cofounder, Thibaud Hug de Larauze, on Venture Beat, following a new round of venture capital funding:

We want customers to find a very fast and easy solution to either repair or swap the product,” Hug de Larauze said. Ultimately, you want people to say there is no point in buying new because refurbished is just as good. And it’s better on price, it’s better on quality, it’s the same level of warranty, and it’s better in terms of ecological impact.”

Good for Back Market to succeed, good for them to raise money, I believe they deserved it just for the clever company name and the smart marketing campaigns I have seen in Paris last winter, so congratulations are in order.

But a few things are bugging me in this quote.

If the ultimate goal of the company really is that people” buy a refurbished device instead of a new one, they will very soon have a problem: if nobody buys new products, the refurbished market might become very, very difficult. I understand the ambition of the company, I understand the wish to grow big and grow fast, but using the word ultimately” here is just weird when you operate in the second-hand market.

Second, how can a refurbished device be better on quality? Better on price I get it obviously — this is the main selling point of a refurbished device — but quality? If Hug de Larauze had said same quality” or comparable quality” I would have let it go (even if it is also wrong), but better” is an overstatement to say the least, or maybe it is a crude edit made by Venture Beat. Better quality than regular used” devices, I could understand, but better quality than a new device is just ridiculous.

I won’t go deep into the whole better ecological impact” part, because it is obviously much more complicated than what three words can say. If they replace the battery in the devices they sell, meaning ordering new batteries and getting rid of the old ones — arguably the worst part of a computing device environmentally speaking — the extra carbon costs of transport needed to refurbish” the device and ship the batteries, and the new steps of packaging may eventually temper quite a bit this better ecological impact” argument, shamelessly qualified as infinitely greener” on the French website. I think it may be eventually better, but, since they provide no data or study on their website (unless I missed it), I can only assume.

Also interesting that in France, some warranties only last six month instead of the twelve months you get when you buy a new device, so not really the same level of warranty” either.

I hope Back Market is more careful with the quality of the devices they sell than they seem to be with their PR agency, otherwise many buyers will end up looking for better value instead of better price next time they buy a new phone, as they should.

On decision, perfection, and better translations

Daniel Benneworth-Gray, writing about the classic Voltaire quote The perfect is the enemy of the good” and how his own decision process relates to it:

This is how I spend my days, in a state of constant indecision. The debilitating belief that all options but one are incorrect could generously be called perfectionism, but a more accurate term would be option paralysis — the tendency, when given unlimited choices, to make none. An interminable mull over whatever trivial options lay before me, every action bogged down by a fear of choosing unwisely — what to write, what to wear, what to watch, what to eat (my sincere apologies to anyone who has ever sat with me at a sushi conveyor belt), what to anything.

Despite hearing it a lot at work, I believe it is the first time that I encounter this quote attributed to Voltaire in English. I became rather intrigued by the translation as the French sentence would translate as The best is the enemy of the good,” but I personally always understood it as something more in the likes of The better is the enemy of the good.”

In French the two words le mieux” indeed translates as the best.” The translators were absolutely correct obviously, but I cannot help but think that my wrong assumption, where the use of the single word mieux” — the one that would translate as only better” and not best” — is closer to the reality of it all, as better” clearly implies an unfinished process of improvement, whereas best” sounds like the project or product is already finished, which in my mind1 kind of goes against the meaning of the aphorism.2

Browsing on Wikipedia, I found another quote on this topic from Robert Watson-Watt, which I absolutely love:

Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes.

  1. If I understand well, the best” in this quote doesn’t apply to the end result, but to the goal of the process itself, which indeed is a, well, better way of thinking about it. My mind more easily thinks about the end result, hence my preference to the better” — albeit wrong — translation.

  2. I learned this expensive word earlier today, so I might as well use it now: An aphorism is a concise, terse, laconic, or memorable expression of a general truth or principle.”

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