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Making the 'Teams' Call: Microsoft Announces Duo, Neo

As part of a general announcement on new models for its Surface product line last week, Microsoft dropped a veritable bombshell with plans to release an Android-powered smartphone carrying the Surface brand. Dubbed Surface Duo, the smartphone was one of two dual-screen devices Microsoft included in the announcement that also addressed enhancements to the Surface Laptop 3, Surface Pro 7, and Surface Pro X. No prices or technical specs (outside physical dimensions) were released, but the Surface Duo and Surface Neo – its Windows-based big brother – are planned for a 2020 holiday season release.
 
The overall hardware segment is still relatively small for Microsoft, representing less than 5% of total revenues, but that’s up 19% year-over-year. While no one wants to talk about hardware from a software company, since the introduction of the Surface in 2012, Microsoft has done a great job coming up with innovative configurations. Panos Panay, chief product officer, Microsoft, describes the company’s original vision for Surface to “remove conflict between the tablet and the laptop” by introducing a touchscreen laptop, an idea that has been copied by other laptop manufacturers – though Apple has yet to join in. As with most Microsoft initiatives, acceptance seems to be centered among enterprise users.
 
That creative reconfigurability that has characterized the Surface can best be seen in the larger Windows-based Neo. A potential laptop substitute, Neo features a magnetic Bluetooth keyboard that can flip up to cover part of one of the screens, while leaving part of the screen surface exposed to provide a trackpad and what Microsoft calls the Wonderbar.
 
Panay said this innovation carries forward with the dual-screen design of the Neo and Duo that allows multiple applications to run simultaneously, alleviating users from the annoyance of switching between applications to remain productive while mobile. Indeed, that message of productivity enhancement is woven throughout the Microsoft announcement.
 
While it’s almost embarrassing to talk about, we’re dealing with hardware here and both the Duo and Neo feature some really sweet hinges. For its design, Microsoft opted for dual screens connected with mechanical hinges rather than a foldable screen that has proved problematic for Samsung. The 360-degree hinges (some references say ‘365-degrees’) appear quite sturdy and allow the devices to be configured in a variety of postures so it can be used like a laptop, a tablet, and in the Duo’s case, like a smartphone – sort of.
 
To make the two screens act as one, Microsoft will look to software. For the Neo, the company is introducing a new version of Windows 10 called Windows 10X that will essentially allow multitasking between different apps running on the two screens. This would allow users to do things like view a Teams videoconference on one screen while looking at the PowerPoints on the other or clicking a link in an email on one screen and having the web page open on the adjacent screen.
 
Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here as there are two separate announcements rolled together, and it’s important to differentiate them.
 
Dual Screen Times Two
Microsoft announced two devices of different sizes with the same general overall appearance but are different in many ways. The Surface Neo features dual 9-inch screens and the Surface Duo smartphone with dual 5.6-inch screens.
 
More than the difference in size, the biggest differentiator is the operating system: Neo runs Windows 10X on an Intel processor and Duo runs some version of Android (allowing access to the Google Play library) on a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor as we typically see in smartphones. The Duo will also have innate cellular voice capability, and given the timeframe, it will likely be 5G compatible.
 
The key functionality Microsoft is selling here is a way of making the two screens work together to deliver a user experience that’s better than having just one big screen. They appear to be on top of that challenge in the Neo where they control the operating system, but what about the Duo?
 
One of Microsoft’s biggest challenges will be getting most of the same interface characteristics of the Neo to work on Duo’s Android platform. The way the dual-screen capability was demonstrated on the Neo was almost magical, but Microsoft must now replicate that experience on a different platform. If Microsoft fails at this, they risk winding up with two similar-looking devices that operate differently and offer completely different capabilities, which could make these the Edsels of their time.
 
It’s a two-level problem. Windows 10X and Android implementation must deliver the operating system capabilities needed, but then apps must also be modified to take advantage of the new environment.
 
Microsoft already has iOS and Android versions of its core productivity apps, including Teams, but those will have to be modified to take advantage of these new capabilities. Then, Microsoft will have to convince its independent Microsoft developers to do the same. It’s unclear whether apps that aren’t modified will have any advantage on the new dual-screen devices.
 
What Does It Mean for The Market(s)?
Microsoft’s re-entry into the smartphone space will likely have no meaningful impact on the larger consumer market, but it could be an important addition for enterprise users – the market it appears to be targeting.
 
Importantly, Microsoft recognizes that hardware is a key component in the user experience. By providing sturdy devices targeted at enterprise needs, it can further cement its position as the key supplier of productivity tools for the enterprise. The most important measure of success, however, will be the acceptance and use of these devices outside of IT departments, where Microsoft finds its most ardent supporters.
 
As was made clear in this Wired review, Microsoft still hasn’t thought through the whole process of how users would interact with the Duo. The reviewer points out that the demonstrated version of the Duo lacks a rear-facing camera, so taking a picture would require the user to open the Duo, unlock the flip function, and point the front-facing camera at what you want to shoot. Looking at the Duo from an enterprise perspective, I don’t see this as overly problematic because cameras aren’t high on requirement lists.
 
Further, as Microsoft’s video on the Duo shows, users would have to physically open the Duo to answer a call. I presume you could answer with a headset, but unless they’re listening to music, most users don’t routinely wear one.
 
The key for Microsoft will be whether business users see the Duo as good enough for their routine business tasks and whether it helps enhance productivity. Maybe, the scenario is users choose the Duo as their company-provided phone and then buy their own personal iPhone. That means we’re back to the two-phone arrangement, but there is a segment of the population who still want a separate “business” phone. If a user does want one phone, I doubt they’re picking a Duo.
 
Further, Duo user adoption would be a big shift because many people are conducting business on an iPhone today and are using the iOS versions of Microsoft apps. Microsoft can’t afford to let support for its Outlook, Office, or Teams applications on iPhone slip since that’s the current user population, many of them will also likely prefer to keep things the same.
 
It’s a big market, and no one product is going to appeal to 100% of buyers. Microsoft will be offering a new, and yet not fully defined, set of capabilities in a new hardware format. However, without a real product in hand, everyone is merely speculating what the “life experience” will be when it finally arrives.
 
One issue will be front and center, however, Microsoft’s product will need to meet the performance and usability expectations of the millennial crowd, and those expectations have been set pretty high by the iPhone. Real world user acceptance is a multi-faceted analysis, but if Microsoft comes up short on ease-of-use, they better hit a home run with the capabilities.

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