The progress of the traditional slate-form smartphone has slowed recently, with global sales falling and genuine innovation seemingly in short supply.
Fed up with paying premium prices for marginal gains, smartphone owners are hanging onto their existing devices for longer as they wait for a compelling reason to upgrade.
Happily, the newly announced Microsoft Surface Duo may provide that reason.
When it was unveiled at Microsoft’s recent Surface Event, this ground-breaking device drew gasps from the audience.
Microsoft won’t call it a phone (preferring to refer to it as a ‘Surface’ or ‘communication device’), yet the Surface Duo is a dual-screen Android smartphone running Google apps.
Not as we know it
However, it’s not a smartphone in the traditional manner.
Instead, there are two screens measuring 5.6 inches each, which can either be used separately or together as a single 8.3-inch screen.
Unlike other recent foldable phones from Samsung and Huawei, the Surface Duo has a visible hinge between its screens, which rotates through 360 degrees.
This allows the user to fold one screen back completely and use the other in the usual smartphone manner.
It’s also possible to stand the device up (ideal when watching videos), to fold out both screens, or close the Surface Duo entirely.
The Microsoft Surface Duo is part of the Californian giant’s eponymous range. Until now, this comprised relatively ‘traditional’ touch-screen computers, laptops, tablets and hybrids.
News of a Surface phone came as a shock, since many assumed Microsoft had given up on smartphones when they discontinued Windows Phone in 2017.
The Surface Duo is certainly new: it won’t go on sale until late next year.
But will it revive the smartphone market?
He has a friend, you know
The Surface Duo isn’t the only dual-screen device Microsoft has announced.
The Surface Neo is a dual-screen tablet that looks like a larger version of the Duo, though it’s actually very different.
The Neo runs Windows 10X OS, which is a version of Windows 10 optimised for mobile and dual screen devices.
Windows 10X isn’t a smartphone OS in the way Windows Phone was, though that may change over time.
The Surface Duo won’t debut with Windows 10X either, even though Windows fans are already demanding a dual-boot version.
However, it will launch with a bespoke Android-based OS, plus Google apps including Google Maps and the Play store.
It will even use Google search. Conversely, the Neo runs Bing by default.
This is a significant change of direction, and Microsoft has acknowledged a lack of app development contributed to the demise of its earlier mobile OS projects.
The Surface Duo is the first consumer-focused (but non-Windows) device Microsoft has launched.
The tech giant clearly values the apps and potential that come with a Google/Android collaboration.
It announced the Surface Duo a year ahead of its launch to maximise the amount of press coverage it received.
Microsoft hopes developers will take note and start creating (and optimising) apps for a dual-screen device.
Some current apps will work across two hinged screens, whereas others will need tweaking.
Other details are vague. SIM use and carriers have yet to be announced, but we do know the Surface Duo has a fingerprint sensor, is 4.8mm thick and takes a USB-C charger.
Its two 5.6-inch screens are shod in robust Gorilla Glass, hopefully eliminating the issues with bending plastic that have plagued some foldable phones.
Better for business?
While the Google content will tempt many current Android users, the Microsoft Surface Duo is also expected to run Windows apps.
This may encourage business users to adopt the Surface Duo, giving both Microsoft and Google/Android a foothold in the Apple-dominated mobile enterprise market.
Microsoft has been keen to position the Duo as ‘productivity enhancing’, designed for people who need to get things done.
There’s a great deal we don’t yet know about the Surface Duo. But there’s plenty we do know about the global smartphone market, including the urgent need for innovation.
The Surface Duo combines the benefits of a foldable phone with the robustness of a tablet, while blending together the best Google and Microsoft applications.
As such, there’s every reason to believe the Surface Duo could be a game-changer once it goes on sale towards the end of next year.