It folds, but the screen isn’t foldable. It sort of fits in your pocket. It has a camera. And it makes phone calls—but don’t you dare call it a phone.
No matter what you do, do not call the new Surface phone a phone. You can call it a Surface, a mobile product, a dual-screen device, a new kind of 2-in-1, a pathway to the all-important cloud. But Panos Panay, Microsoft’s chief product officer, doesn’t want you to call it a phone.
Never mind that the thing slips in and out of the pocket of Panay’s salt-and-pepper tweed blazer exactly the way a smartphone would. Or that one of the earliest scenes in the marketing video for the thing, with its slow, fetishized swirls of the gadget, shows a woman picking it up to her ear and saying “Hello?” the way you would with, well, you know. Or that Panay himself admits he makes what are universally known as a “phone calls” from it.
Never mind that it doesn’t run Windows but Android, the most widely-used smartphone operating system in the world. When you ask Panay what this thing is, this device with a seam and two side-by-side screens that fold closed like a soft Moleskin notebook, he immediately says, “It’s a Surface.” The company’s chief executive, Satya Nadella, underscores this distinction, saying Microsoft is not entering an existing device category; instead, it’s trying to create a new one.
But there is no doubt that this is a phone. And not just any phone but the long-rumored Surface phone. Though it won’t ship for a year, its mere existence is a big deal for Microsoft. It’s also a riddle.
Microsoft is still a dominant player on the desktop, but the company famously failed at mobile. That may be stating the obvious, but it’s necessary context if you’re going to try to understand what this new dual-screened device is. (Even then, I make no promises that you’re going to understand it.)
What’s ironic is that Microsoft was actually early to pocketable operating systems, having first shipped Windows CE back in the mid-1990s. That became the precursor to the Pocket PC OS at the turn of the 2000s, which then became Windows Mobile in 2003. Windows Mobile evolved for several years, running on devices like the Palm Treo, the HTC Touch, and a BlackBerry lookalike called the Samsung Omnia Pro (it had a QWERTY keyboard). But in the meantime, well, 2007 happened.
Apple’s iPhone launched that June. The App Store launched the following year, and so did Google’s Android operating system. Microsoft was caught slack-jawed as its rivals successfully recruited developers and convinced them to make both consumer and enterprise apps for their pocket computers.
The early 2010s ushered in the renamed Windows Phone operating system; Windows Phone 8 was the first mobile OS from Microsoft to run on the same kernel as its PC OS. Then, in 2013, Microsoft bought Nokia’s handset business for billions of dollars, part of a bold strategy to own both the hardware and software experience. It didn’t work.
In July 2017, Microsoft stopped supporting Windows Phone. Last year, Microsoft’s departing chief of Windows, Terry Myerson, said in an exit interview that Microsoft squandered its early opportunities as a differentiated mobile platform, and said it was “so clear in hindsight that the disruption in business model which Android represented was enormous.”
But it wasn’t all bad news for Microsoft in the hardware department. Back in 2010, while Microsoft’s mobile lunch was being eaten by Apple and Google, Panay was instructed to do something with Microsoft’s Surface, originally conceived of as a touchscreen tabletop computer. The hardware team’s answer was a line of 2-in-1 tablets, launched in 2012.
That 2-in-1 Surface still exists, and the lineup grew to include clamshell laptops, uber-expensive all-in-one desktops, and giant digital whiteboards. Microsoft likes to tout the business’ growth numbers—device sales swelled 40 percent year-over-year last fiscal year, and the Surface unit now brings in revenues of around $5.7 billion annually—but Microsoft has a small fraction of the overall PC market. Licensing its operating system and software to other PC makers is still a much, much bigger business.
One gets the sense that the new Surface Neo tablet and Surface Duo, the un-phone, are now-or-never projects. These are throwbacks to the rumored Courier booklet and the more recent Andromeda fever dreams of Panos Panay come to life. But they’re also mini Surfaces designed to catapult Microsoft back into mobile. Even so, they’re not expected to ship until the holiday season of 2020.
The Surface Neo and Surface Duo are not “foldables,” the parlance used for an emerging wave of devices with flexible polymer displays. Samsung has shipped one of these foldables, the Galaxy Fold, although its initial launch was deemed an embarrassment. Huawei is supposedly shipping one soon. Lenovo has even shown off a prototype for a 13-inch foldable PC.
Microsoft has “absolutely” been exploring this technology, Panay tells me. “We have to.” But at some point, he claims, the value of a screen merely unfolding—a single app jumping up in size to fill a suddenly larger screen—didn’t intrigue him the same way that two structured screens did. “We decided to put all of our energy into two screens, together.”
The tabletlike Surface Neo is exactly that: two screens, together. Each individual screen measures 9 inches diagonally, and when it’s extended it has a 13.1-inch diagonal display. It folds all the way back, giving the hinge a 360-degree range of motion. It has a metal and polycarbonate frame, but both the front and back are covered in strengthened glass. A giant Surface logo is stamped on its cover.
It looks sleek, but like the dual-screened Duo phone, the Neo tablet isn’t done. They’ll both ship late next year, and Microsoft isn’t even beginning to suggest how much each device will cost.
Certain elements are pretty much set in stone (or glass): The Neo will support a stylus pen, like other Surfaces, and it will have a magnetic accessory keyboard attached to it. This trackpad-less Bluetooth keyboard can be magnetically attached to the outside cover of the Neo when you’re using it like a tablet, and when you crease the gadget you can slap the keyboard onto one of its displays and use it like a standard laptop keyboard.
Wait, there’s more: The screen real estate that goes unused above or below the diminutive keyboard can either be turned into a touch trackpad or a “Wunderbar,” a swath of screen dedicated to emoji and video windows and application shortcuts. It’s like Apple’s MacBook Pro Touch Bar but bigger and, one can only hope, more useful.
This Surface Neo feels like a Microsoft device. It will run on an Intel heterogeneous chip, designed for smaller form factors, and it will run on a new version of the OS called Windows 10X, which is designed for dual-screen PCs. The Surface Duo, which at first glance looks like a Mini Me of the Surface Neo, is in many ways a completely different product.
The Surface Duo has two screens, like its larger sibling, but it’s powered by a Qualcomm processor, the Snapdragon 855, and it’s running on Android.
Microsoft had two versions of the product on hand when I visited its campus in Redmond, Washington, last week. One was closer to the finish line in terms of hardware, but the software wasn’t usable. That one was almost an exact replica of the Neo, just smaller, with its screens measuring 5.6 inches each, and around 8 inches diagonally when unfolded.
The Surface Duo that Panay has been carrying around for six months is black, not white, and it’s running a version of Android 9 Pie that’s been tweaked to support the dual screens.
Holding the Surface Duo is like holding a shell of the past crammed with a not-fully-realized future. It’s as thin and light as a pocketable notebook, the paper kind, but from every angle it gleams with screen and glass and shiny hinges. Like the Neo, it shouts “Surface!” because of its large logo, etched in glass. I know it’s a phone—it works like a phone, it is littered with Android apps—and yet I can’t imagine making many phone calls from it, or going for a run with it, or, in its current form, using it as my only camera on vacation.
In fact, the most recent version of the Duo doesn’t have a rear-facing camera. The way it’s currently designed, taking a picture would require the person using it to open the Duo, unlock the Duo, and flip its front-facing camera to the back of the device. I question this, more than once. Panay says it’s still early days, that the camera may change, that he’s nervous to reveal this so far in advance because it exposes the design to competitors.
“These are our efforts for the past two and a half years, so there’s a balance to the number of details I can give, even with regards to the camera,” he tells me.
But Panay, and later Nadella, both insist that the goal is not to position it as a smartphone in the traditional sense. The Surface Neo and the Surface Duo are part of a whole line of products, each one filling some sort of gap in productivity—each one pushing Microsoft software in their own unique way. “The idea is, I want to help you become more creative and productive,” Panay says. “That doesn’t mean a bajillion-megapixel camera on the back of the product. It means I get you into the flow, so you can create, you don’t have to switch out of context.”
“The next time you have to write a long email on your phone, and then you normally have to switch to a Surface or Mac to finish it?” Panay continues. “You don’t have to do that again.”
He cites examples of running Outlook on the Surface Duo, with one side of the device showing your inbox and the other display a Compose screen. Or running a meeting in Teams (Microsoft’s version of Slack) from one screen, and then when someone asks you to pull up a document, you can access it on the other screen. Or just running two websites side by side and dragging and dropping content between them. And while Panay didn’t call out gaming specifically, it’s easy to see how this Nintendo DS–like thing could be optimized for games.
Creativity and productivity are supposed to be the point of the dual screens. Microsoft has conducted experiments in its labs, the company says, to attempt to prove that switching between two side-by-side screens on the same device is less taxing on the brain than trying to accomplish multiple tasks on one solitary screen. And it does seem like it would be convenient, in those scenarios, to not have to swipe and tap and snap windows into place in order to multitask.
At some point I am brought into the labs where the experiments have been taking place. One woman has a hair-fine needle threaded into the palm of her hand for electromyography readings, and another woman sits silently wearing an EEG cap. They swipe and tap on the two-screened Duo, and nearby monitors light up with data, but Microsoft is surprisingly low on information when I ask how long the company has been conducting these tests for and how many subjects have participated.
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Those dual-screened experiences Panay describes are just as reliant on the software working well as they are on the two screens existing side by side. And that’s where Android comes in. At some point Microsoft determined that if you can’t beat them, you need to join them and try your darnedest to differentiate. It will attempt to make Microsoft apps the best Microsoft apps you can get on an Android device.
When I ask him if he ever considered reviving a Windows mobile OS, Panay says no. Twice. And he says it firmly. “At the end of the day, where the applications sit today, the opportunity that people have already leaned into, that developers have already taken advantage of—it’s right there. And there’s a reality to that. To ignore that would be silly.”
Later on I ask Nadella the same question, and he zooms out even further. “The operating system is no longer the most important layer for us,” he says. “What is most important for us is the app model and the experience. How people are going to write apps for Duo and Neo will have a lot more to do with each other than just writing a Windows app or an Android app, because it’s going to be about the Microsoft graph.”
The notion that we have in 2019 that the device is the center of the computing experience is “just nonsense,” Nadella continues. The future is cloud-powered, if anything.
But why make a dual-screened device, then? Why not just make a killer, single-screened, pocketable thing? And why, in the era of slowing smartphone sales, would Microsoft give it a go now?
Panay says he didn’t think about making a single-screened phone, and that this dual-screened phone is the antithesis of a single-screened phone in many ways, because of how much more productive you can be on it. It is so obvious that he loves this thing. That he’s been restraining himself from talking about it publicly for one, two, nearly three years now. That he feels more productive with it, though it remains to be seen whether there’s a market for dual-screened, cellular-equipped, Android devices running optimized Windows apps.
As for that market, Nadella waves off the idea that Microsoft is going to be competing, once again, in the smartphone market. “This is a device category in which we can do things that we couldn’t do before,” he says. “It’s kind of like 2-in-1s were seven years ago. People started saying, ‘What are these things? Do people even need them?’ And now everybody seems to have them. So that’s how I look at it: What should we do with these two screens?”
Just how much you can do on those two screens won’t be determined for at least a year. But no matter what you do, don’t call the Surface phone a phone.
All Rights Reserved for Lauren Goode