The Surface Duo isn't such an outlandish idea, but Microsoft has to convince punters the form factor is worth having
And there might be a delay before devs warm up to dual screens
Comment The Surface Duo isn't an original idea – just look at LG's newest V60 smartphone or Toshiba's quirky Libretto Libretto W100 laptop. There's an air of experimentation about these devices, appearing to outsiders as a less-than-serious punt on a new direction. A gamble, essentially.
But Microsoft's new form factor feels more earnest, probably because it's Redmond's first stab at a phone in a long time. Microsoft's hardware aspirations ride on this device, and any failure may critically damage the firm's mobile esteem, not to mention the standing of the Surface line. So no pressure then.
At nearly $1,400, the Surface Duo isn't the most expensive phone out there, and thus unlikely to raise many eyebrows. As we pointed out earlier this week, it's roughly comparable to the current asking price of the Samsung Galaxy Fold.
It isn't too far removed from that of conventional flagship mobes either. On the Android front, you can point to the Huawei P40 Pro+, which retails at £1,299.99 ($1,700 at today's exchange rates). Meanwhile, the fully specced-out iPhone 11 Pro Max costs $1,499 before tax. What people might not like when asked to pay this price for the Surface Duo, however, is the ageing Snapdragon 855 platform inside and lack of 5G support.
The Surface Duo has also arrived at a difficult time for the industry. Smartphone volumes are down and the ongoing economic uncertainty has prompted many to re-evaluate their purchasing habits, with flagships increasingly shunned for cheaper mid-rangers.
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Analyst Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight said: "The high price will deter many users from buying it; more so in light of the pandemic and competitive landscape. There are too many high-end devices chasing too few dollars."
Microsoft's biggest challenge will be convincing people they need that second display. Right now, there aren't too many consumer use cases, and as a result Redmond is heavily marketing this device to professionals, emphasising the productivity advantages of a dual-screen phone.
Demonstrating the device in a recorded press briefing, now available to watch on the Surface YouTube channel, corporate VP of mobile and cross-device experiences Shilpa Ranganathan showed how the Office stable of productivity apps works in this relatively untapped form factor.
OneNote, for example, allows you to look at multiple notebooks concurrently. The Android version of PowerPoint gives you a more traditional overview at your presentations, with a list of all existing slides located on one display, and a big-picture look at an individual slide in another.
But while Microsoft's own apps looked nicely polished, the biggest hurdle will be whether third-party apps readily adopt this form factor. The press demonstration showed WhatsApp spanned across both displays – albeit with the phone "projecting" to a desktop computer – and it didn't look particularly impressive. It seemed abnormally elongated.
Baking in that third-party support will take time and, ultimately, developer interest. The latter may not be immediately forthcoming, considering the Surface Duo will almost certainly be a niche device catering to a small percentage of the phone-buying population.
It also doesn't help that, from the outset, Microsoft isn't gunning for a worldwide release. The Surface Duo will be a US exclusive at first, and it's not obvious when it'll hit European shores.
On the flip side, it's also true that people are increasingly accustomed to dual-display environments for their day-to-day home and business computing. Most businesses have quickly figured out that people can get more done if their workers are given plenty of display real estate to multitask with. So perhaps the Surface Duo as a biz device might even catch on. ®