Microsoft relies on the innovative Surface Duo and Surface Neo

This week, Microsoft’s Surface team was on stage in New York to unveil the three anticipated Surface updates, but Chief Product Office Panos Panay had two other things that wowed the invited audience. Two mobile devices with two screens that are supposed to take over the growing dominance of high-performance tablets and state-of-the-art folding smartphones.

What should we think of the Surface Duo and Surface Neo machines? What risks is Microsoft taking and for what advantages?

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The obvious risk is actually front and middle and not hidden at all. These devices won’t be available until the 2020 holiday season, which is about twelve months away. While there are a number of wise reasons to announce early (including avoiding leaks to control the story), Microsoft is risking the Osborne Effect. If consumers choose to postpone buying a “dual-screen” device, third-party hardware will do so – there are no Microsoft products that Duo or Neo will conflict with. I think this is a risk worth taking.

There is also the question of software. The Surface Neo is expected to run Windows 10X – a stripped-down version of Windows 10 designed for Intel multi-screen devices – and the smaller Surface “Not A Phone” duo will actually run Android with a skin similar to the comes very close to the Windows 10X user interface.

Microsoft needs to give developers a story on how apps are encoded for these devices using a mix of Android, Windows 10X, web apps, Windows Store apps, and the older Win32 apps. Windows Phone’s biggest problem at startup was its lack of solid app support enough to limit its rollout of adorable devices like the Nokia Lumia 800. Did Microsoft Learn Its Lesson?

I would also highlight a tiny touch of Ferris Bueller – life moves fast – and what looks stunning and stunning on a stage-managed launch in New York in October 2019 could completely miss the mark by October 2020. Mobile technology is moving more slowly this decade than last, but Microsoft is at risk of being outdone by a faster manufacturer.

© 2019 Bloomberg Finance LP

On the other hand, there’s a lot to like about this approach. First, this isn’t Microsoft flying alone. Although the launch event naturally focused on the Surface Duo and Surface Neo, Microsoft is pushing for “Dual Screen” as a new category. I have no doubt that larger Surface Neo will be complemented by Windows 10X designs from Dell, HP, and Asus.

One reason for the year of lead time is to allow Windows partners to build and develop their own devices and increase the addressable base for developers.

Although Microsoft lost to Google to have the dominant mobile operating system, in recent years it has been humble enough to end the mobile operating system wars and move to the service layer (i.e. just above the OS layer). Microsoft’s cloud-based services have extensive mobile apps, and Redmond has a plethora of Android (and iOS) experiences, as evidenced by Teams, Outlook, OneNote, and other mobile apps.

The leap to an Android device (as the Surface Duo appears to be, though I suspect the exact software is still in flux) is a step up, but not a big step up. A year of public testing on top of what’s already been done in private testing is still a question besides app development experience, but maybe not as much as many would think.

Finally, it should be noted that the strategy shown this week is still in line with the current mission. The Surface X, Surface Pro 7, and Surface Laptop 3 were all expected (although I got my money for Surface X being Surface 7). Given the radicalism of the Surface Pro and Surface Book at launch, Surface Duo and Surface Neo bring the same revolutionary game to the mobile space.

And while Microsoft’s hardware still shows what can be done in space, much like Google’s Pixel and Nexus hardware, they really do support the cloud-based services that power the entire Windows ecosystem.

© 2019 Bloomberg Finance LP

I’m glad Microsoft avoided the obvious and business-safe approach of keeping everything under wraps (or at least trying to keep everything under wraps) until Neo and Duo were ready to go. There are downsides to playing the long game in public, but I think the benefits of this more open approach will come with a bigger dividend.

Now read how Microsoft’s initial failure with the Surface family turned into a success story …

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