How to think about Microsoft's new smartphone

Abstract binary data overlays an eye containing a reflection of the Microsoft logo.

Microsoft got out of the smartphone racket more than ten years ago after failing conspicuously in that business.

Their phones were fine, but Microsoft's smartphone operating system couldn't compete against Android and iOS to gain significant market share.

Microsoft went back to the drawing board to reinvent its mobile phone strategy, this time on Android. (If you can’t beat 'em, join 'em.)

That's also why Microsoft doesn't want to call the Surface Duo a phone. Too much bad history. Instead the company is pretending that they're inventing a new category of device that the world has never seen before. And that was almost true when Microsoft first decided to build the Duo. In the interim, however, some innovative Android-based dual-screen devices have come out. The FUD was a dud.

Despite Microsoft's spin, the Surface Duo is a phone, and one that competes with other dual screen phones on the market, including the Samsung Galaxy Fold 2.

And the phone is coming soon. Microsoft now offers the Duo for preorder, and has announced that the Duo would ship Sept. 10 and cost $1,399.

We knew the ship date was imminent. Over the past few weeks, senior executives — including Panos Panay, Brad Anderson, Joe Belfiore and Shilpa Ranganathan — have been spotted with, or have posted photographs of themselves using, Surface Duo phones.

The device has appeared at the Bluetooth SIG and has been certified by the FCC and also by the government of Canada.

What we know

Based on leaks, examined code, published certification documents and the feature set of the Surface Duo Simulator, we know a lot about the unannounced features and functions of the Surface Duo device.

For example, we can expect the device to run Android 10 at launch and Android 11 soon thereafter. The user interface will be Microsoft Launcher, which brings a decidedly Windows 10 feel to Android on Duo, and also facilitates both the bells and the whistles of the Duo two-screen interface absent from Android proper.

Two screens will enable users to use the Duo as one big screen or two small screens. As such, apps will be openable in pairs or groups using a feature called "App Groups."

The Duo's two 5.6-inch, 1800 x 1350, 401ppi AMOLED screens will behave differently in each of four configurations, including open (flat tablet mode), closed (flat smartphone mode), “folded open” (like a tent with the screens on the outside) and "folded closed" (like a book). The patented hinge that separates the two halves of the phone swivel 360 degrees, so you can close it with the screens facing each other on the inside (basically closing the device) or with the screens on the outside. Reviewers who got the chance to fondle non-working prototypes have proclaimed the hinge to feel very high-quality.

The "folded open" mode will be useful for propping the Duo up next to your bed as an alarm clock or giving a presentation to one person you’re facing at a restaurant, with each side seeing the presentation or the other person seeing your slides and you seeing your notes.

Flipped around so that the screens are on the outside, you could imagine taking a hybrid snapshot/selfie, where both the photographer and the subject see what the camera sees at the same time.

In laptop mode, the camera will be positioned for you to do Zoom calls, with the other people on the top screen and a large onscreen keyboard on the bottom.

Under the hood, we know that the first version of the Surface Duo sports a Snapdragon 855 with 6 GB of RAM and storage options of 64 to 256 GB. It’s got a big 3,460 mAh battery. Those screens will be sucking a lot of juice.

The Duo will contain an 11-megapixel camera with flash. No "front facing" camera is needed, because you the "rear facing" camera faces front when you swing the screen around to the other side.

Leakmonger Evan Blass revealed that the Duo will work initially on the AT&T network and support LTE bands for all four major US carriers. Note that the first version will not support 5G.

We know that like any other major phone, it supports Bluetooth, 802.11ac WiFi and will not support NFC.

Duo will support Surface Pen, and that Pen's gestures and shortcuts will be fully customizable using dedicated Pen settings. These pen-and-gesture interface options will no doubt prove to be one of the surprising benefits of the Duo.

Microsoft chose to use the physical clamshell design for privacy. It works like this. If you want to check notifications or other such information, you can open the clamshell maybe an inch or two, revealing just the right-hand side of the bottom inside screen. The full notifications will appear there, allowing you to browse, dismiss or open these notifications while the top screen part shields the screen from anyone sitting to your left. You would naturally hold the phone and swipe with your right hand, and your hand shields the notifications from anyone on your right.

iPhone killer?

Personally, I'm super excited for the Surface Duo because I've been a fan of Microsoft's massive body of invention, research and patents around pen-and-screen gestures, hinge design and usage models around two-screen devices. They've been hatching these ideas for decades.

But let's be realistic: The Surface Duo is not going to dent the iPhone market or cripple Samsung.

The biggest impact of the Surface Duo will be on Microsoft’s other devices.

Why Microsoft's Android phone is great for Windows

The Big Gorilla in American end user technology, of course, is the mighty Apple Corporation. Their lineup of devices — the iPhone, iPad and Macs — are truly great, elegant and dominant.

But they're also a little stale. Even diehard Apple fans are a bit "meh" on MacBook Pros and iPads. As polished as those platforms are, the new generations of them are just a bit better, but not much different. If you’ve got a two-year-old MacBook and a two-year-old iPad, there’s no real reason to upgrade to the latest and greatest. They’re functionally about the same.

Committed users are even hanging on to their iPhones longer. The older phones are still perfect, and the newer phones are much the same — unless you need a slightly better great camera.

Many users are tempted by or have moved to Microsoft devices as a more exciting alternative to Apple.

The Surface Duo in particular, and the coming Surface Neo and Duo together in general, is a compelling alternative for some Apple users.

This is especially true in a world where you could buy a Duo and a Neo and use them together. The Duo replaces an iPhone. The Neo replaces a MacBook Pro. And they both replace an iPad.

Buying the two Microsoft devices will cost a fraction of the price of buying the three Apple devices.

But even for one-screen Microsoft Surface tablet fans, the Duo is a powerful nudge to get people to embrace any larger Microsoft device.

In other words, the march of Microsoft as an interesting, dare I say exciting, broad user platform for enterprises, businesses and even consumer users continues. As Apple more or less continues to stand still in laptops and tablets, Microsoft comes along with an iPhone replacement that makes Apple's tablets and laptops even less compelling.

No, the Surface Duo isn’t going to "kill" the iPhone. But it's going to seriously contribute to the overall appeal of the Surface line over the next few years, and add the kind of bolder innovation some Apple users have been missing... and craving.