Microsoft's smoke signals gave away the development of the Surface Duo



As we told you earlier this morning, Microsoft has unveiled a new Surface-branded device, the Duo. It runs on Android and features two screens (hence its name). Microsoft is promoting the 360-degree hinge that allows the device to be used in different configurations, many of which we have seen before as illustrations accompanying the software giant's patent applications. In fact, a pair of patents that we told you about on the last day of August practically let the cat out of the bag.

Discussing one of the patents, which focused on the hinge of a dual-screened device, we told you that "it will allow the screens to move in a 360-degree arc while supporting different positions that the dual screens can be opened in."  A series of patents related to a possible Surface Phone started appearing in this space back in January 2017. Before the year was out, a series of renders had, ahem, surfaced. And you know what? The renders, created by designer David Breyer, look pretty close to what Microsoft unveiled today including the Surface Pen support that showed up in a video that was played at today's event.


Now here is an interesting theory. If you recall, the foldable Surface Phone was reportedly going to run a version of Windows called Andromeda. Andromeda. Android. Was Microsoft trying to tell us something as far back as 2017? Even the dual-screened Surface Neo Windows tablet was hinted at last year. Back in July 2018, when Microsoft allegedly put the foldable Surface Phone on hold, there was talk about a larger dual-screened device that wouldn't be pocketable.


The Surface Duo isn't expected to be officially unveiled until next October's Surface event and a lot could change between now and then. But it really does appear that Microsoft's patent applications and other leaks were in retrospect smoke signals telling us that Microsoft was returning to the smartphone hardware business. The company's Windows Phone powered handsets never caught on because of what became known as the "app gap." With such a small share of the smartphone industry, developers saw no reason to go through the expense and time of creating Windows Phone versions of popular iOS and Android titles. So Microsoft followed in the footsteps of BlackBerry, which finally junked the BlackBerry Operating System and turned to Android starting with 2015's BlackBerry Priv.

Microsoft needs to keep the buzz alive for a full year


Trying to figure out where the Surface Duo will fit on the smartphone spectrum is not clear since it won't be available until late 2020. The device is not exactly a foldable like the Samsung Galaxy Fold since it uses two screens that have a vertical border separating the pair. On the other hand, it does multitasking like a foldable and can even do it better since each screen can run independently of the other. And unlike the Samsung Galaxy Fold, the Surface Duo does support a pen or stylus. However, by the time the Duo does launch next year, we probably will have seen other foldables, like the Motorola RAZR (2019) released. But Microsoft doesn't see the Duo as a phone specifically and considers it a productivity tool. This could be the type of device that businesses will provide those working in the field. And in Laptop Mode, typing reports out of the office will be a lot easier than using a smartphone.


Microsoft's problem is to keep the buzz alive for a year until the Duo is launched. This will require the company to continuously issue updates to the media, publish videos and basically leak the device over time until businesses and consumers are panting in desire.

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13 Comments

1. Dr.Phil

Posts: 2451; Member since: Feb 14, 2011

Honestly I think Microsoft did a fantastic job here. You can tell that they’re giving this a lot of thought and not just rushing it to the market like I believe Samsung tried to do with the Fold. I am sure some people are upset that it isn’t one full screen, but honestly I see a lot more pros than cons for this device. It can fold flat, it looks thinner than the Fold, no exterior screens to get scratched in a pocket or purse, most likely the ability to apply an actual screen protector, no notches, pen support, and so on. Really great job. I just hope it ships with the latest and greatest processor next year and they have camera technology to match the Pixel.

4. jellmoo

Posts: 2627; Member since: Oct 31, 2011

I'm actually inclined to disagree as I don't think the early announcement is going to do much for them. Having a year+ between announcement and release is a huge amount of time for consumer apathy to set in. They also are dealing with the fact that the product gave off a very strong prototype vibe, and one that looks significantly less advanced than the competition. And yes, a lot can change in a year, but in that year the competition will be releasing second gen products and have a year of metrics and data to study while Microsoft is just entering the market. With a less advanced product. A product that they are brand new to, whilst their competition have years of experience developing for. Their one saving grace may be cost. They may be able to keep the price of their device lower than those with foldable displays. But that info is still a year away, and until then all they've really shown is a concept device that is less of an eye grabber than products already out or about to come out.

6. Dr.Phil

Posts: 2451; Member since: Feb 14, 2011

I disagree with the notion about it being significantly less advanced than the competition. Does it have a foldable screen? No. Has Samsung or Huawei or Xiaomi convinced everyone they need a foldable screen? No. Especially when a fingernail or dust build up under the screen can cause damage, I don’t think we are where we need to be with foldable screens yet. Also, as others have pointed out: this concept could easily transition to a true foldable screen design as soon as that becomes a viable option. You mention next year the competition will have second gen products and a year of metric data. The only “competition” in this space right now is really Samsung, Huawei, and LG (with their dual screen phone). That means there are more people not in this space than there are in it. I doubt Microsoft is going to be behind when they finally introduce this phone considering there are dozens of other manufacturers that have yet to enter the space. Also, talk about metrics, I am highly confident over the next year Microsoft will have beta products for certain people to try that they can examine how they use it and how to improve it. I also disagree that isn’t less of an eye grabber than the Galaxy Fold. The Fold doesn’t close fully, it has a big notch on the inner screen, it’s thick, and has a very small exterior screen. In contrast, this device just looks cleaner and more durable. I doubt dust or a fingernail is going to harm it.

7. jellmoo

Posts: 2627; Member since: Oct 31, 2011

Devices of this type are years old though. This one is most certainly going to be better, but that isn't an amazingly high bar to set. The foldable devices actually incorporate new technology and design to accomplish something... well... new. This, as shown, really doesn't. This isn't a problem, but it's pretty telling that they're announcing this a year out. Announced, released or heavily rumoured we have devices from Samsung, Huawei, LG and Motorola. That's two of the top device manufacturers in the world that account for an awful lot of devices sold. And there are how many others that are in development but not announced yet? Microsoft is going into this at a disadvantage, with a product that is decidedly "less sexy" than the current gen devices. What will they be up against in a year's time? Here's the thing: I'm not saying that the foldables are "better". I agree completely that there are multiple points of failure. I agree that the Microsoft approach may in fact lead to a product with better functionality. But from an appeal standpoint, it's not even a contest. With giant bezels and an incredibly obvious seam, this just looks dated. The final design will undoubtedly look better. I can't imagine they'll release it with those bezels. But that was the first impression they gave. When companies like Samsung and Huawei are showing off things that look downright futuristic (even if they are flawed), Microsoft showed off something straight out of 5 years ago.

8. Dr.Phil

Posts: 2451; Member since: Feb 14, 2011

I can already say the ability to have it stay at a half fold to be almost like a mini laptop is something that is indeed new. The dual screen devices we have had in the past have had flimsy hinges that wouldn't have allowed that to be possible. Plus, I would imagine within a years time we will see Microsoft introduce some new apps/services that take advantage of the dual-screen. Also, how do we know that Microsoft won't pull off something like Samsung where they introduce a lot of native apps/services/features built into Android that would be exclusive to the Surface Duo? As far as the bezels, I would imagine since there was no cameras on the exterior of the device that they are going to have two to four cameras located on the upper bezel of the one screen while the other one is for the "main" front-facing camera. And since symmetry is seen as more tasteful, they have just as large of a bezel for the bottom. We also have no idea how good the Mate X is going to be considering it's not even on sale yet. The Galaxy Fold has shown to have several issues that have kept it from being widely adopted. Motorola we don't know what that will look like considering we only have renders and rumors to go off of. LG hasn't really demonstrated why we should buy their dual-screen device and they haven't been a major player in some time. And I also don't think you understand that it's not always good to have your device be the first one out there. I was reading some consumer reviews of the Galaxy Fold and what I saw was something that is true of many "first" devices: the software isn't where the hardware is. People were complaining that the hardware felt great but the software left them wanting many fixes. Web pages are wonky, apps don't work like they should, etc. While these are problems that will be fixed, they won't be fixed for a while. Microsoft will have the ability to launch a device that will already have the software that works for it.

9. Dr.Phil

Posts: 2451; Member since: Feb 14, 2011

By the way, I just watched one of Austin Evan's new videos and the guy specifically says that the reason Microsoft announced it a year in advance is to let developers get a head start. Kind of going again off what I said about the hardware being ahead of the software. It looks like Microsoft wants their product to have software that matches the hardware which is very smart if you ask me.

11. BJay2K

Posts: 9; Member since: Mar 20, 2018

I have a Galaxy Fold and can tell you the experience feels futuristic today and doesn't feel like the software isn't fully baked. Feels very mature. Sammy put those extra months to good use. Just sucks we don't have flexible glass yet. Maybe gen 2 or 3.

12. Dr.Phil

Posts: 2451; Member since: Feb 14, 2011

"Open an app on the small screen, unfold the phone, and the app automatically supersizes. (In some cases, I got a pop-up that the app needed to restart.) " - WSJ "Not all apps are created equal, however. Instagram looks ridiculously large, as you still only see one post at a time, and Twitter could be refined. As time passes and more foldable phones are released on the market (and prove popular), expect app developers to tinker with their apps to make better use of these larger screens." - Digital Trends "A decent number of third-party apps already support this multitasking mode, such as Spotify and Slack, but I noticed that Skype does not. It will take time for more developers to update their software for foldable phones like this." - TomsGuide Even Samsung themselves admitted that "hundreds" of apps are optimized for the Fold. Which sounds great, but there are millions of apps that are out there that are not. They also never specified which apps they were referring to.

13. jellmoo

Posts: 2627; Member since: Oct 31, 2011

Here's the thing though, having a hinge that stays open to create a "laptop" experience is also a point of mechanical failure, just like a foldable. It will have only so many opens before the hinge gives way. And I have no idea what software features Microsoft will bake in. I'm pretty sure they'll bake some in, probably some cool ones too. But they haven't shown them to us yet, and my imagination isn't really the best marketing strategy for them to employ. I have to believe that they have a plan for cameras on the device and that those bezels were only present due to it being a prototype. Going to market with 2011 bezels in 2020 would be disastrous. The main thing keeping the Galaxy Fold from being widely adopted is far less the issues and much more the price of entry. The public at large simply is unwilling to spend $2k on a mobile phone. The Mate X will face exactly the same issue, only worse. It's an incredibly niche device that requires a large investment to be a part of 1st gen technology. The bigger question mark is if they will be able to lower the price of entry with the second gen. And you're right, LG hasn't been a major player in some time and haven't demonstrated why we should buy their dual screen device. The thing is, you can take LG out of that sentence and replace it with Microsoft and it would still ring true. And you're right, being first isn't always best. Not by a long shot. The problem in this case is that Microsoft isn't going to be second or third either, and their first entry lacks the "sex appeal" of the other first entries into the list, let alone what the second gen stuff will be. And I agree that it might be the best implementation. I have no idea. I'm certainly not sold on foldables. But when it comes to sheer allure and desirability, the Surface Duo hasn't shown anything yet. And that's a problem when it comes to hype.

2. MBXONE

Posts: 1; Member since: Oct 02, 2019

Correction on the Surface concept, the originator of the concept is Industrial Designer Ryan Smalley and the concept was originally called Surface Note. The first article online was from June 2017 as a folding display concept then later updated to dual displays. Just Google Surface Note concept, you will find many articles from 2017.

3. Subie

Posts: 2392; Member since: Aug 01, 2015

Announced now but waiting an entire year to release... By this time next year there could be a half dozen Chinese copycats with smaller bezels selling for half the price Microsoft wants will want to sell theirs.

5. VariableCheapskate

Posts: 174; Member since: May 29, 2019

Who cares if it's up to another year. Folding LED panels have more than a year before being worth anywhere near at least $800 in execution, provided that Corning, Sharp, and others have a solution that guarantees a more versatile build quality. Is it pretty? Yes. Can it be awesome? Well, anything with the right effort can, even folding or rolling displays. Clamshell is still the best if we're talking about Phablets (yes that term can be used appropriately again) geared towards productivity. Microsoft ate a lot of humble pie, made a very useful custom application launcher, and are taking steps to do some things Google still half asses on. I have my issues with Windows 10, and I'm not sure what they're going to mess up next, but within reason they're improving.

10. raiter

Posts: 36; Member since: Mar 10, 2014

The foldable devices are new product. I guess Microsoft did not risk to be the first. The reisk with new products are the hardware issues itself, soft (nor Android nor the appps are ready for dual screen or foldable oprions), the reception of consumers, the price.). Microsoft anupunced the idea of foldable device 3+ years ago. Then waited. Other EOM also hasitated to invent the device. Finally Samsung, and then Huawei and LG developed the first devices. And Samsung got the first hit - the fiasco with Fold test devices. Now - time will show, how durable, and how practital, the new form factor will be. So Micrisift has one more year, to observe, how the rival devices will perform. And Microsoft has more time to polish the Surface device, and to avoid the rival`s errors, and to wait for the soft be ready and apps polished for foldables.

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