Thoughts on Surface Duo: I Told You So!

I don’t want to say I told you so, but it’s just too tempting. Yes, I told you so! Not long after I published my article about how and why Microsoft should adopt Android, Microsoft adopted Android. It’s not exactly like the way I described in my article, but it’s a baby step and I will take it as a win. I don’t have inside information. I’m just an old Windows Phone fan who moved on. I moved on so I can see which direction Microsoft is moving on too. Yep, in case it’s still not clear, it’s Android.

Microsoft announced Surface Duo in October 2019. It runs Android, and it has two screens. Let’s talk about it.

OS

Operating System is the boring part. Yes, it’s Android. Some may say it’s the most surprising part of the announcement, but I think it’s the opposite. Of course it’s Android. What else could it be? It’s a mobile device. Despite all Microsoft’s effort to differentiate it, it’s still a smart phone. As such, there are only two OSes for phone type devices, iOS and Android. Since it’s definitely not going to be iOS, it’s Android. People may argue it should be some version of Windows. I don’t know what to tell you. There must be no internet where you live.
Android is great and all, but it’s designed for single, small screen experience. Despite Google’s effort to convince everyone that they are building Android with Samsung and Microsoft to make it adapt to different screen configuration, I still think they have a long way to go. The OS experience will largely depend on Microsoft’s ability to make appealing software, and I don’t have much faith in that.

One of the things the OS need to be able to do is that it need to detect the change of postures, and it needs to change it’s shell UI to adapt to those changes. For example, when the user flip it around and want to use a single screen, it needs to turn off the screen that’s facing downward and display content like a normal phone. This is the part that I’m kind of skeptical about. The gyroscope has never been fast enough to give a good experience for any rotation based experience. It also needs to take the degree between the two screen into account since it has so many postures that all depends on it.

Well, let’s see how well Microsoft can handle these issues. It’s not a particular hard problem, but it requires a lot of tweaking of the OS to make the experience enjoyable.

Specs

Microsoft wouldn’t share too much about the specs of the prototype. All that we know is that it currently runs a Snapdragon 855, but it will change to a more up-to-date SoC next year when it releases. Now, I wouldn’t worry too much about which SoC Microsoft chooses to use. It’s going to be Snapdragon 865 for sure. I’m more concerned about the performance of that SoC. Don’t get me wrong, the raw performance of the SoC is nothing to be doubted with. However, Surface Duo is a very thin device. It may barely have the space to cool down the full heat the SoC generates. On the other hand, it does have two sides, the side that contains the SoC does not need to have too massive of a battery because the other side still has some space. This way, maybe the heat situation can even be better in this type of device. I’m not sure though, as this is not exactly my area of expertise.

As a dual screen device, multi tasking is the default assumption of how people would use it. For that, it will need a pretty large amount of RAM. Microsoft is not known for making powerful devices. All the Surfaces are underpowered to say the least. I hope Duo can have 8 GB of RAM to start with, but I expect it to come with 6 GB as the base configuration.

Camera

Now, let’s talk about the camera. Smart phones nowadays are almost entirely judged by how good the camera is. Unfortunately, camera need light to come in which need physical space to fit a lens. Given the thickness of Duo, it’s going to have a less than average camera for sure. I know that there’s patens about how to combine two sides of the device to form a thick enough body for a two part camera system where you can only use it when flipped closed, but it’s no where near practical to be used in real world.
Well, it’s not going to be pitched as the camera phone anyway. Expect it to be the worst camera on a phone you will see in 2020. It’s going to be worse than even mid range phones.

Software

Software is going to be the key part of this device’s experience. Without proper app support, it’s going to be very hard to have a consistent user experience. Some app will be able to split between two screen and scale properly while doing so. Users will be able to drag the apps to the top of the screen and the app will scale up like a desktop app without reopening itself. However, if an app does not support this, it may be need to be reopened to be spanned across both screens. Even it opens, we still have the issue where the content might get blocked by the seem down in the middle since the app is not aware of it.

This might be a big issue because, unlike Samsung Galaxy Fold where the screen is in one piece, there is a seam down in the middle. If most apps can only be used on one side of the screen, why would anyone buy a dual screen device? Well, Duo is not trying to replace smart phone for everyone. Like I said before, most people want a powerful camera in their phone, and Duo is not going to be able to compete. Where Duo will shine is in the productivity world. There are people, in the enterprise world or among power users, who use the full Office suite. There are use cases where people need to share files or pieces of information from Word or Excel while having a video call with someone in Teams. There are people need to type out a full long article on the go, and they may prefer a separate screen for the keyboard and another for Word. The point is that Microsoft has the full suite of productivity software from Office, Power Platform to GitHub and Azure DevOps, and the sole increase of productivity from a user who uses these apps should be enough to justify the purchase. In this case, this device will be a perfect fit for people in the Microsoft app and service ecosystem.

That being said, I do doubt Microsoft’s ability to support their own platform. Like I stated in the other article, Microsoft does not even support their own Surface Pro X with Teams and Edge. It could be different for Surface Duo though, since all of Microsoft’s incapability of supporting their own platform seems to be limited to Windows. They are very active when it comes to developing Android and iOS apps. Let’s wait and see what going to happen.

Closing Thoughts

As a Microsoft fan, I will definitely buy this device. As a developer, I will also try my best to develop apps that support this device. However, I will not give it my unconditional love. I will judge it fairly in order for the Surface team to improve.

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