Microsoft's long-awaited Surface Phone isn't really a phone at all.
At least, that's what Microsoft wants you to think - but in reality, everyone is calling this thing a phone - after all, the promo video shown at Microsoft's event even showed somebody picking it up, holding it to the ear and saying "hello" in much the same way as you'd use any other phone.
What Microsoft is getting at, of course, is that the Surface Duo (and, to some extent, the larger Surface Neo) shouldn't be compared to other flagship phones out there - Surface chief Panos Panay wants you to think of it as being in a new category. And of course, at the moment a straightforward comparison would reflect on the device unfairly when it is a year from hitting the streets.
Surface Duo taps into the demand for ever more portable devices yet with larger screens. But if you always want the latest iPhone, you'll still want the latest iPhone. Duo isn't about to cure that. And to pigeonhole it as a competitor to, say, Samsung's Galaxy Fold is to miss the point a little.
Microsoft is targeting people already buried deep into the Windows and Office ecosystem. People who want Continuum-style features of flipping between a Word document on their phone and a Windows PC. And of course, there are a lot of those people - we know that Office 365 has just shy of 200 million paid users worldwide.
Side-by-side multitasking - doing serious work on mobile devices - is something Apple, Samsung, LG and others have been talking about for some time, but it remains broadly unpractical in many circumstances.
Microsoft is aiming to nail the app experience. To do this, of course, it has had to compromise. A decade ago it was unforeseeable that Microsoft would kill the criminally under-developed Windows Phone in favour of moving to Android. Yet here we are.
So Microsoft has to target a best-in-class app and services experience with Office, Outlook and OneDrive alongside the wealth of other Google Play Store apps. Could Duo (and Neo) really make a success of this? We certainly saw some excellent multitasking between the displays in the demo video, but who knows how well this will translate to practical use.
The halo effect of Surface
Unlike for Windows Phone though, there should actually be customers this time. People like Surface. They like Office 365. And we know that Microsoft's Surface business is doing well - in late 2018 Microsoft became one of the top five US PC vendors, though sales elsewhere aren't as strong. That's a lot of Surface customers who could potentially be encouraged to choose a Surface phone.
Another intriguing aspect is gaming. The Neo and Duo are also fascinating devices for Project xCloud. During the Duo demo video there was a game running on the device and we know there will be APIs for xCloud developers that will enable games to stream on devices such as these. That could make Duo a compelling gaming handheld.
One thing is for sure, Microsoft will have its work cut out - by the time Duo is on sale we will not only have second generation foldable phones, but we'll have a 5G iPhone and a next-generation Samsung Galaxy S11. The market keeps moving - can Microsoft persuade us that it can keep up enough to invest in Duo?
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