At Microsoft’s annual Surface hardware event, the company teased a look into its smartphone future. The surface Duo prototype device isn’t going to be available for at least a year, but it does show that a Surface phone is on the horizon. Microsoft is already working hard to not call the Surface Duo a phone, but rather a new device category – focused on work “flow.”
While no details of the hardware, and in fact software, were released the Surface Duo is clear sign to how Microsoft will look to address the mobile handset market going forward. And the company is laying the groundwork for its new devices to succeed when they do become available.
Double the screen
One of the key aspects Microsoft appears to be set on is the physical form of the device. The Surface Duo has two connected screens, like the larger Surface Neo prototype, with a hinge that allows the screens to be completely flat against each other folded in (with screens touching) or folded out (with the backs touching).
Internals are likely to change between now and actual launch, but the company highlighted its cooperation with Qualcomm and Google on the device, covering hardware and software. Both aspects of the device need to be aligned for Microsoft to deliver on the Surface brand promise of power and performance. Software plays an essential part in delivering this.
Microsoft is not the first company to announce, let alone, launch a dual screen device. What is different to ZTE’s Axon M, for example, is that Android as a mobile platform is now much better positioned to support the form factor – supporting multiple screens on the OS layer.
Microsoft was clever in how it positioned its dual-screen layout. Not to deliver a larger, tablet-sized screen, but rather to further drive multitasking and productivity. The company showed off how web links from an email can automatically open in a new window on the other screen. More extensive text input will be possible with a larger keyboard on one of the displays. Viewed in this context, borders between screens are not as much of a problematic interface as they were on other dual-screen phones, which all sought to enlarge the screen for existing use cases, like video consumption.
Apps and services are key – and will take time
To deliver on a smooth, optimized, user experience Microsoft needs time. Developers need time to develop new apps and services for the new form factor and adjust existing apps to move seamlessly across two screens. Teasing the Duo over a year in advance is Microsoft asking developers to engage with the new hardware platform.
Microsoft is now in a much better position to drive developer engagement and traction of the new hardware. The new device will be based on Android, and not Microsoft’s own mobile platform. A key issue in Windows Phone’s downfall was the fact that Microsoft could not overcome the numerical advantages iOS and Android had already gathered by the time the company wanted to establish a third mobile ecosystem. Developer support never materialized, and Microsoft exited the smartphone business.
Now, Microsoft is focused on connecting with its users whatever they use as their mobile device. The latest realization of this strategy is for Microsoft to use Android as the platform for its upcoming smartphone efforts. Using Android, Microsoft does not have to worry about establishing its own app ecosystem and can focus on delivering the Microsoft services suite and services via its own, differentiated hardware.
Smartphone market concentrates on top 6 brands
The global smartphone market concentrates on the top 6 brands: Samsung, Huawei, Apple, Oppo, Xiaomi and vivo. These six brands account for almost 80% of smartphone shipments globally. It is only getting harder for other brands to compete with the top 6 in many aspects, like manufacturing scale, design capabilities, distribution and marketing. Therefore, it will be critical for Microsoft to set a specific target audience rather than trying to address the general consumer market.
A key target audience for Surface Duo will be enterprise deployments. A flexible hardware platform, which can handle calls, connectivity and productivity tools in one device should be of interest to many enterprise customers who could use a device like this to consolidate their mobile device hardware portfolios. Microsoft is also smart to announce the upcoming availability of such a device to organizations, which might need time to adjust their technology spending behavior to consider such devices.
Microsoft’s re-entry into the smartphone market looks much different from its previous efforts and is therefore much better positioned to succeed. Unlike before, the company is not trying to establish its own mobile ecosystem but is rather looking to extend its own applications and services to a new hardware form factor under its own Surface brand.