Can Microsoft capture some smartphone space with Surface Duo?

Smartphone users have been griping about the lack of real innovation and the absence of surprises in most new product launches in the industry in recent years. But last week there was a reminder that surprises could yet come, and that too from unlikely quarters, thanks to a Microsoft announcement.

At an annual hardware event on Oct. 2, Microsoft created buzz as it unveiled some dual-screen products including a two-screened smartphone called Surface Duo. The folding phone bears two side-by-side displays connected by a hinge, allowing it to unfold as a miniature tablet.

Powered by Android, the new device is slated for launch late next year. It would mark a return of Microsoft to the smartphone space after the firm exited the market two years ago following the failure of its Windows phones.

At the event in New York City last week, Microsoft announced a series of product upgrades for its Surface devices. While the regular upgrade to the Surface tablet offered no surprise, what proved exciting was the unveiling of the Surface Duo phone and a dual-screen laptop called Surface Neo.

The announcements came as many consumers have been looking for a “wow” product for a long time as smartphone design in the industry has changed little for many years. The dual-screen system successfully brings new potential for smartphone and tablet computers to perform many more features than before.

Microsoft said it teamed up with Google to bring the best of Android to the Surface Duo. As per the prototype, the device comes with two 5.6-inch displays and becomes an 8.3-inch tablet when folded out flat. Microsoft used a Snapdragon 855 processor in the prototype Duo but may swap it out for an 865 chip before launch in 2020, according to the Windows Central tech news platform.

Microsoft could include 5G when the device launches in time for the Christmas holiday season in 2020. The company didn’t reveal any pricing plans but analysts believe the gadget could be quite expensive given its features and design.

While Duo is generally seen as an Android smartphone, Microsoft is trying to convince the public that Duo is a Surface device that is much more than a phone. The seeming reluctance to use the word “phone” to describe the gadget maybe because Microsoft does not want the public to link smartphones with the company following its Windows phone debacle.

Microsoft acquired the Nokia smartphone business in 2013 but failed to challenge Apple and Google’s Android in the market with Windows smartphones under the Lumia brand. Microsoft finally quit the business by selling it back to Nokia.

“Surface Duo does much more than make phone calls — it’s a dual-screen Surface that fits in your pocket, bringing together the best of Microsoft productivity experiences, Android apps, and Surface hardware design into a single device,” tech news platform Cnet cited a Microsoft spokesperson as saying in an email.

The Microsoft initiative comes as market positioning of the smartphone has been getting blurred in the industry in the past few years, even as the form factor has remained almost the same for a decade. Phone makers have been thinking of improving the phone’s function rather than take a risk to launch a different form factor product.

For example, Apple has been devoting a lot of effort in the recent past to enhance the iPhone’s camera system. The firm’s new iPhone 11 Pro series comes with a triple-camera system and offers outstanding performance against the Android rivals.

Some phone makers, meanwhile, have been focusing on producing mobile game smartphones, with the ASUS ROG series and Xiaomi Black Shark series among the examples. The products are tailored for game users to play their favorite games on the go.

Overall, what we can say is that, after a decade of development, a smartphone is going beyond its core feature as a phone and transforming into a mobile device for specific use like photography and gaming.

Against this backdrop, it shouldn’t be surprising that Microsoft is pitching Surface Duo as more than just a phone. While delivering phone features and allowing all the related functions, the device should serve as a computer for users to do various tasks on the go.

The user experience would be much better than using a single-screen device as apps can make use of the dual-screen to display relevant information on each side of the screen. Taking Microsoft Outlook as an example, the app will be able to open up emails in one panel, while keeping your inbox on the other display.

After losing out badly in the market, Microsoft is now seeking to pitch its tent once again in the smartphone arena. The Surface Duo has generated excitement among gadget lovers, but there’s still a year to go for the product launch and it’s hard to predict its fortunes as of now.

But there’s one thing that we can be reasonably certain about: other industry players will be making their own moves to fend off potential threat from the Duo.

A columnist in political development in Greater China region, technology and gadgets, media industry, parenting and other interesting topics.

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