Sunday 20 October 2019

Meet Microsoft’s new phone: 'It makes calls... it texts... but it isn't a phone'

Microsoft Surface Duo phone (Pic: Adrian Weckler)
Microsoft Surface Duo phone (Pic: Adrian Weckler)

Adrian Weckler in New York

In the on-screen demonstration, a woman hears the sound of a phone ringing. She reaches into her bag to answer it — and takes out Microsoft’s new Surface Duo.

She then answers the call, which has come in over a cellular network, on the 5.6-inch Duo device.

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So let’s be clear about this: Microsoft has just announced a new phone.

Right?

“I don't think that’s exactly right,” said Matt Barlow, Microsoft’s corporate vide president of Windows and Devices ecosystem, in an interview with Independent.ie.

“This is a Surface, a productivity device.”

But it makes calls, right?

“Yes, it definitely makes calls. And it texts.”

And it works on the cellular network?

“Yes.”

And it fits in your pocket?

“Yes, absolutely.”

So…

“We look at this as a Surface, a productivity device. I love the way that Panos [Panay, Microsoft’s chief product officer] described it today. He said that this is a Surface.”

There aren’t many internal technical details available yet for the device, except that it has two 5.6-inch screens separated by a 360-degree hinge. That means that you can fold the phone shut, like a laptop.

Or you can have it the other way, with a screen, front and back. Or, with both screens flat, you might even have it as one 8.3-inch larger tablet, even though it’s not a continuous screen.

But will it be, for example, a 5G phone?

“We're not talking at this stage about the more technological specifications,” said Barlow.

This is fair enough for a product that isn’t expected for sale until late next year.

The sample we got to see in Microsoft’s New York Surface event was an advanced prototype. Panay told the assembled audience that only reason he was giving details on it was that Microsoft would like third party developers to get interested in it. This takes time before a commercial launch; the buzz that its unveiling might generate could kickstart developer interest.

Even still, is there a plan to range this as a smartphone with mobile operators?

“I can tell you that when we talk to certain partners behind the scenes, both operators and traditional retailers, lots of people want to be part of the dual screen family with the Duo and the [larger, also announced] Neo. I can't tell you right now exactly where we're going with it, except that this will be in place for the holidays in 2020.”

Why pick Android? Clearly there’s a massive established Android smartphone ecosystem out there with instant access to millions of apps (including well-used Microsoft apps). Even still, wasn’t there a temptation to go with, say, a new Windows variant as the company has done with WIndows 10X for the Surface Neo?

“Well, as Satya [Nadella, Microsoft CEO] said, the desire is that no matter what operating system you choose, you should be able to have the apps flow in a way that makes sense,” said Barlow. “We’re bringing our design ethos to this more mobile footprint. So if you buy the dual screen [Surface Neo] Windows device, the apps work one way. If you buy the dual screen [Surface Duo] Android based device surface, the apps are going to work the same way.”

But isn’t Microsoft, like Android or Apple, trying to make everything seamless within a wider ecosystem of their own?

“Our belief is that we're going to be able to narrow that gap,” he said. “It’s got to be buttery smooth, or it defeats the purpose. But this is the beauty of what Microsoft is today. And the ecosystem today is really embracing customers where they are.”

Barlow raised Github as an example and Microsoft’s post-acquisition pledge to maintain an open source ethos there.

 “We’ve taken Office and run it cross platform,” he said. “We want to embrace customers where they are in terms of the technology they use. And then we want to build experiences on top of that and have that experience follow them, versus an experience that has to be different based on the ecosystem.”

There are no other practical details on the Surface Duo at this stage, such as how much it might cost. But with dual 5.6-inch displays and — presumably — decent processors and storage options, it seems unlikely for such a device to come in at less than €1,500.

However, it is already arguably the star of the company’s Surface event this year, despite a slew of other upgraded devices and new variants, such as the Surface Pro X or its new Surface Earbuds.

Together with existing product lines such as the Surface Hub, Microsoft has now entered an era as an elite, designer hardware company. The Surface brand is now arguably second only to Apple as a boutique hardware marque available in the mass market.

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