Microsoft’s Surface Duo could be revolutionary, or a two-screen disaster phone

Final month was an odd type of anniversary at Microsoft. In the summertime of 2015, Taylor Swift’s Unhealthy Blood and Wiz Khalifa’s See You Once more topped the charts whereas hypothesis in regards to the iPhone 6S was operating wild. 

And that July, Microsoft introduced considered one of its most spectacular fails — ever.

Satya Nadella, only a yr into his tenure as Microsoft CEO, introduced a $7.6 billion financial loss for Microsoft due to the corporate’s failed acquisition of telephone large Nokia, introduced in 2013. Worse, 7,800 employees would lose their jobs. Nadella just about mentioned they’d step again from the smartphone market within the close to future.

“We’re transferring from a technique to develop a standalone telephone enterprise to a technique to develop and create a vibrant Home windows ecosystem together with our first-party gadget household,” Nadella mentioned in an email to Microsoft employees on the time. “I’m dedicated to our first-party gadgets, together with telephones.”

Seems that wasn’t the top of Microsoft’s telephone ambitions. Across the time the corporate was writing off Nokia, a workforce inside Microsoft was hatching a plan to create a brand new gadget, one that may straddle what a telephone and pill might be and at last give Microsoft relevance within the half-trillion greenback world smartphone market, dominated by Samsung, Apple and Huawei.

The result’s the Surface Duo, a $1,399, 8.8-ouncesmartphone-ish gadget with two 5.6-inch screens that come collectively to type a bigger show with a hinged seam down the middle. The design permits it to put unfolded, flat on a desk. You can even set it up like a tent, with the 2 screens dealing with outward. You may maintain it open like a e book, with the 2 screens dealing with inward. And you may shut it like a clamshell. Microsoft’s strategy runs counter to different foldable gadgets launched this yr, together with Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 2, which Samsung hasn’t revealed the value of. That gadget is constructed round a single 7.6-inch inside display that bends when closed.

“We simply have a perception there is a new class right here,” Panos Panay, Microsoft’s Chief Product Officer and Floor head, defined to me in an interview final week about Microsoft’s distinctive design. “We all know how way more productive persons are on two screens.”

Microsoft says analysis reveals our brains work in a different way once we’re utilizing two screens.

Richard Peterson/CNET

The opposite factor that makes the Surface Duo uncommon is that it isn’t powered by Microsoft’s Home windows software program for PCs, or its cellular software program that was discontinued in 2017. As a substitute, it runs on a modified model of Google’s Android, the software program utilized by just about each smartphone or pill that does not come from Apple. Additionally notable is that the Floor Duo — not like the Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 2 — does not help next-generation 5G wireless technology. Microsoft mentioned it opted to skip 5G as a part of a trade-off to save lots of battery life and permit the gadget to be solely 4.Eight millimeters thick when open (lower than the iPad Professional’s 5.9 millimeters). When closed, the 2 screens stack on each other, making the Floor Duo’s thickness 9.9 millimeters — or lower than half an inch.

“Once we designed it, the intent was, ‘How do you make one thing so skinny, stunning, gentle and tremendous elegant that when individuals decide it up they’ll really feel that emotion within the product,”‘ Panay mentioned.

This type of speak about altering our lives by means of a product is frequent amongst tech executives and significantly of Panay, whose sentimental stage presence at Microsoft occasions stands out among the many sometimes robotic advertising individuals going by means of their script.

However he steadfastly believes the Floor Duo has one thing to contribute to the world, whether you call it a phone or a dual-screen pill or a no matter, as tech watchers debated when it was unveiled last year.

The Floor Duo’s hinge in motion.


Panay reveals us his private Floor Duo gadget throughout a video chat, with messages on the proper aspect, ESPN on the left. He tries to cover calendar invitations and emails as he excitedly demonstrates how they work. “I imagine the world wants to maneuver ahead making a extra cellular, productive world,”  he mentioned.

Whether or not you may imagine him in all probability has a bit to do with what you consider Microsoft. CNET reviewer Scott Stein, who received to play with a see-through prototype that didn’t have working screens, says the Floor Duo feels comfy to carry, like a e book. “It does not really feel like two telephones glued collectively, both,” Stein mentioned.

The Floor Duo goes on sale Sept. 10 however is obtainable from Microsoft, AT&T and Finest Purchase for pre-order beginning Wednesday. It will work on AT&T, T-Cellular and Verizon Wi-fi networks. The AT&T model might be locked to that community.

Failing up

Seven years in the past, Microsoft purchased Nokia and began promoting its personal telephones. 5 years in the past it gave up. As we speak, enter the Floor Duo.

Richard Peterson/CNET

It is simple to dismiss Microsoft — and many individuals do. The 45-year-old firm is handled just like the elder statesman of tech, which it’s, and Nadella himself proudly admits his company isn’t cool. “You be a part of right here to not be cool, however to make others cool,” he advised me in 2018. “You wish to be cool by doing that empowerment … It is the end result that issues.”

So whereas it might not be a buzzy, hip firm, it is valued at $1.54 trillion, making it one of many high 5 corporations on this planet together with Amazon, Apple and Google father or mother Alphabet. Its Home windows software program powers greater than 77% of the computer systems on the planet. And its Workplace productiveness software program is so ingrained in our tradition that the majority of my mates do not know the identify of Google’s free competing apps — they’re simply “the Google model of Excel” or “Google’s PowerPoint.” (They’re known as Google Sheets and Slides, however even I needed to look that up to make sure.)

Microsoft turned such a robust pressure {that a} decide decided the corporate violated antitrust rules in 2002. However the US authorities simply slapped it on the wrist and let it proceed being Microsoft. “Now the one means Microsoft can die is by suicide,” business pundit Robert Cringely wrote after the verdict

You possibly can argue it is tried that too.  

Microsoft’s Floor Duo sits on the high of a mind-boggling pile of fails, with untold billions of {dollars} misplaced on acquisitions, distractions and dead-ends. 

In 2014, Microsoft purchased then struggling Nokia, which had a huge role in building the cell phone as we know it. Microsoft bought Nokia to get within the cellular sport after lacking the smartphone revolution, after which failing to seek out success with Samsung, LG and HTC making Home windows Cellphone-powered gadgets. 

The billions of {dollars} misplaced on Nokia do not embrace the failed Home windows Cellphone software program that powered its Lumia telephones, the tens of millions spent wooing builders to make apps for those handsets, or the tens of millions extra doled out on promoting in opposition to market leaders Samsung and Apple. (And do not get me began on Microsoft’s squandered alternative with the Pocket PC initiative, which began in 2000 and was killed off in 2010.)

The telephone flops do not cease at Nokia and Home windows Cellphone. There’s additionally the Kin smartphone for teenagers, born from its 2008 acquisition of telephone maker Hazard for a reported $500 million. The gadget was so unpopular it was pulled from retailer cabinets within two months of its 2010 launch

Outdoors of telephones, Microsoft’s most notable fails embrace Bing, the search engine it launched in 2009 to tackle Google. As we speak, it has 6% market share compared with Google’s 86%

And should you do not keep in mind the Zune media participant meant to tackle the iPod, Microsoft would probably prefer you keep it that way

A take a look at the digicam and different guts of the Floor Duo.

Richard Peterson/CNET

Fortuitously for Microsoft, it continues to rake in massive piles of cash from Home windows, Workplace and its Azure business and storage servers to offset these losses. As of June, Microsoft had $133 billion in its piggy financial institution — and that is regardless of the economic collapse caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

As we speak, Microsoft’s Surface tablet PC is nicely considered, and the software program and companies that run it reside as much as expectations.

The query is whether or not the Floor Duo, a tool that took greater than 5 years and an untold sum of money to create (the corporate would not say how a lot), might be a house run like Workplace, nicely regarded just like the Floor or one other Nokia cash pit.

“It is the start of a complete new enterprise for a brand new type issue and never only for Microsoft,” Panay mentioned. “I believe that is fairly superior.”

He and his workforce are particularly excited in regards to the philosophy that drove the Floor Duo’s design.

However Panay is not naive. He is aware of not everybody will exit and purchase it on day one, partly due to its uncommon design and its deal with work duties. Its 11-megapixel digicam’s specs do not stand as much as those from Samsung and Apple, and it additionally does not have stereo audio system, making it a poor competitor to top-tier gadgets with Dolby-enabled stereo speakers marketed as nice machines to observe and hearken to media with.

Richard Peterson/CNET

To not point out, at a premium worth of $1,399 for the 128GB model, Floor Duo is a tough sufficient promote on a standard day. However now, it is arriving in the course of a pandemic that is spurred one of many biggest economic catastrophes of the trendy age. Microsoft says it is going to supply clients a 0% curiosity funds over 24 months if purchased by means of the corporate, and it will be obtainable by means of AT&T’s Subsequent Up improve program as nicely.

But when the Floor Duo evokes telephones in the identical means the Surface’s thin design and keyboard cover modified the way in which corporations make PCs and tablets, he’ll be joyful. And to show it, he notes that Microsoft’s working with Google to deliver the applied sciences developed for the Floor Duo into Android, so different gadget makers can construct related devices too. That features issues just like the software program Microsoft created to handle the 2 screens aspect by aspect and to make apps work between them too.

“Merchandise are a mirrored image of the people who make them,” Panay provides. “These merchandise have our soul and love in them. And we hope that you just really feel it.”

Seeing Duo

All sides of the Floor Duo is thinner than Apple’s thinnest iPad.

Richard Peterson/CNET

When demoing a brand new gadget, Microsoft sometimes invitations reporters to its campus in Redmond, Washington, to see an array of prototypes, testing gear and labs with the intention to discuss by means of the broader context about its latest gadget.

In 2019, when touring the corporate’s Human Factors Engineering Lab, I chanced on an Xbox controller that was heavier than the usual ones I might used. It was bigger too, with buttons far sufficient aside I needed to stretch my fingers to the touch a few of them. Carl Ledbetter, then senior director of design on the lab, mentioned it is meant to assist his engineers higher perceive what it is like for various individuals to carry the controller. On this case, he mentioned, “You might be 5 years outdated.”

The coronavirus pandemic made these enjoyable moments unattainable with the Floor Duo. 

This time, I am peering by means of a webcam into Panay’s house, then considered one of Microsoft’s on-campus presentation rooms the place the corporate assures me the workers are protected and following social distancing tips. We wrestle with technical points over the Microsoft Groups video chat software program, and joke how if anybody ought to have the ability to make these conversations work effortlessly, it must be techies like us (Sigh.)

There have been no rows of prototypes, however 4 members of Panay’s workforce took time to clarify the method of creating the Floor Duo’s slimline, dual-screen design and the tech that made it doable.

Making it thinner meant pushing electronics to the bezels of the screens, for instance. However then executives pushed to have these bezels shrunk as nicely. The 2 batteries constructed into Floor Duo are completely different sizes and behind the 2 completely different screens, so Microsoft needed to construct specialised battery administration tech to ensure they’d cost, discharge and customarily work collectively in methods we, the shoppers, would not discover. They usually had to try this with wires snaking between the hinges.

A glance contained in the Floor Duo’s hinge.

Scott Stein/CNET

The corporate spent numerous time on these hinges, which appear like small cuffs connecting the highest and backside of the 2 screens. They’re largely product of chrome steel on the skin. Inside, they’re created from an Iron-Copper powder for the motion mechanism and a Copper-Nickel-based alloy for the wires.

Microsoft says the “dual-axis” hinges are designed to maneuver in 360 levels. However wherever you cease, they should enable the screens to take a seat with out wobbling. It takes numerous work to make a hinge straightforward to maneuver on goal, however onerous to maneuver accidentally. 

Microsoft mentioned it is put prototypes by means of tens of millions of folds, however would not give specifics about how a lot the hinges can face up to apart from to say they’re going to final “nicely past the lifespan” of the gadget.

“Miniaturization of the hinge is type of elementary,” mentioned Pavan Davuluri, a 16-year veteran engineer of Microsoft who additionally works on the corporate’s Floor merchandise. To make the Floor Duo work, he mentioned Microsoft needed to create ever-smaller hinges that may connect with the shows with out making them too thick.

There is a suite of gyroscope sensors to establish the place the screens are relative to one another, to allow them to show an app or video the way in which you are holding the gadget. There’s additionally software program that anticipates when persons are shifting between the 2 touchscreens too, dragging apps from one display to a different along with your finger or a pen (which is offered individually for at the very least $100). The software program senses once you’re transferring a photograph or different media between the screens, too.

Microsoft’s designers in-built visible cues into Android that can assist you determine issues out. You may inform the Floor Duo to save lots of a setting of two apps aspect by aspect, so you possibly can simply return to them collectively everytime you need. Whenever you try this, the gadget creates a particular house display icon that reveals a break up grey sq. that is just a little bigger than a folder, with an app on either side.

Lastly, Panay’s design workforce labored to ensure the 2 screens lined up completely. To try this, Microsoft created a bigger display underneath every high and backside bezel. That means, when the left and proper sides of the gadget are introduced collectively in manufacturing (it is made in China), the viewing space of every display is shifted barely up or down in order that they match. Then, they’re calibrated to show close to similar gentle and colour as nicely.

“Shows are like snowflakes, no two shows are ever the identical,” mentioned Steven Bathiche, a Microsoft technical fellow who focuses on how we work together with our computer systems as head of Microsoft’s Applied Sciences Group. “Each determination, each innovation that we did, down from the side ratio to the pixels, was about designing a cellular type that helped you keep within the movement and show you how to do extra.”

When he thinks of the design of the 2 screens, Bathiche mentioned it is an homage to magazines and books, whose 4:Three side ratio is just like the screens on the Floor Duo. But it surely’s completely different from the 19.5:9 side ratio sometimes discovered on a contemporary iPhone, or 19.3:9 on Samsung’s just lately introduced $1,300 Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. It is no surprise then that Amazon’s been constructing a Kindle app for the gadget that mimics studying an actual e book.

“We’re essentially impressed by paper, we’re impressed by notebooks, we’re impressed by moleskins and slates,” Bathiche mentioned.

How to not fail

Microsoft desires to tackle Apple and Samsung. Even in terms of the packaging.

Richard Peterson/CNET

Between telephone calls with Microsoft, Stein and I mentioned features of the gadget that stood out to us. He preferred how the prototype Microsoft despatched him felt in his fingers. “I have been skeptical about dual-screen gadgets, and I wasn’t positive how I’d really feel in regards to the Floor Duo,” he mentioned. And but, even holding a non-working unit, he mentioned, “I am already falling in love with the texture of the factor.”

I used to be intrigued by having two apps open on two completely different screens, one thing builders engaged on apps for my Apple iPad Professional simply can not seem to get proper. I puzzled whether or not the seam down the center is likely to be annoying, however I received used to the notch on my iPhone, and Galaxy Fold customers inform me they hardly discover the crease on their foldable display.

“It is a specialised gadget that can discover a group of people that will adore it to loss of life,” mentioned Bob O’Donnell, an analyst at Technalysis Analysis. O’Donnell says he loves final yr’s Samsung Galaxy Fold he is been utilizing, significantly as a result of the bigger display makes it simpler for him to do work, and gives an even bigger space to see textual content.

He hasn’t touched the Floor Duo but, however he is frightened the hinge-seam will annoy individuals the place the only display that is folded on Samsung’s gadget would not. And to not point out, cellular gadget makers Kyocera and ZTE have each tried constructing dual-screen telephones up to now, solely to see them flop.

Nonetheless, O’Donnell’s prepared to present Panay and his hinges the good thing about the doubt.

“Microsoft’s sensible sufficient and pondering by means of sufficient that it’ll provide you with strategies of working that individuals discover engaging,” he mentioned.

Panay desires us to know Microsoft did not arrive at this design accidentally. It is not a resurrection of the failed Courier venture both, regardless of wanting just like Microsoft’s prototyped-but-never-released two-screen productivity tablet leaked in 2009. In contrast to the Floor Duo, the Courier ran a model of Home windows, relied closely on a pen that individuals would recurrently use to write down on the display.

For Microsoft, the Floor Duo is about making an attempt to strike out with one thing genuinely new in an age the place most telephones look the identical, and those that do not have not taken off. 

For no matter criticisms you stage at Microsoft, the Floor Duo is a sort of gadget none of its friends are providing. Whether or not that is good or dangerous might be as much as you.

“We all know the cellular panorama wants to vary,” Panay mentioned. “There’s a lot extra that may occur.”

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Ian Sherr