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Microsoft Surface Duo: Some Early Misgivings

Why did Microsoft go with Android and not Windows 10? Why aren't other Surface devices supported? Microsoft's upcoming Surface Duo might end up being brilliant, but for now it has us scratching our heads.

Microsoft recently started taking preorders for its much-anticipated Surface Duo, which is expected to hit retail shelves on Sept. 10. For those who may not be familiar with the device, it's essentially a Surface-branded Android phone with two screens.

I have to admit that I'm having a really tough time figuring out what I want to say about this device. On one hand, the Surface Duo seems like an ill-conceived, schizophrenic mash-up. On the other hand, the device might not be quite so crazy, after all. In fact, I can think of several use cases for which it might be ideally suited.

You are probably wondering why I described the Surface Duo as some sort of schizophrenic mash-up. Although I haven't had the chance to use (or even see) a Surface Duo in person, I can't help but get the sense that Microsoft wasn't sure what kind of device it wanted to create.

As previously noted, the Surface Duo runs an Android operating system. While I would have greatly preferred that the Surface Duo run Windows 10, Android was probably a safe choice. After all, the main reason why Windows Phone never gained mainstream acceptance was that there weren't enough apps available for it. Microsoft's decision to use an Android OS on the Surface Duo handily avoids that problem.

Interestingly, though, Microsoft did a bit more than simply build an Android phone with two screens and brand it as a Surface device. It took the extra step of making the Surface Pen work with the Surface Duo. Not having tried the Surface Duo myself, I'm not sure about application support for the pen, but I'm assuming that it works with the integrated Office applications.

Despite the device's support for the Surface Pen, I still have a hard time thinking of the Surface Duo as a "real" Surface device because it lacks support for other Surface hardware. Since the Surface Duo was announced, I have read at least a couple of blogs suggesting that the Surface Duo is geared toward busy professionals who need a device with capabilities that go well beyond those of a standard smartphone, but who don't always have a laptop handy. While I think this is probably a fair assessment of Microsoft's target customer for the Surface Duo, I also think that power users would be much better-served if the Surface Duo were designed to work with the Surface Dock. Who knows -- maybe we will see Surface Dock support in the 2.0 release.

Keep in mind, I'm not trying to bash the Surface Duo. If anything, I applaud Microsoft for breaking away from the traditional smartphone form factor and trying to do something different. Yes, there are other foldable, multiscreen phones on the market, but Microsoft really does seem to be trying to do something new. Besides, the Surface Duo has two capabilities that may cause it to quickly become the device of choice for power users.

The first of these capabilities is obvious. Because the Surface Duo has two screens, it is possible to run two applications side-by-side. I absolutely love the idea of being able to have two documents (or a document and a Web page) on screen at the same time. I can't even begin to count the number of times that I have wished my phone could display two applications simultaneously.

The other capability is that, supposedly, some apps will be able to span both screens. I can only imagine how combining the two 5.6-inch displays into one "giant" 8.1-inch display will make it so much easier to perform tasks such as editing spreadsheets or composing lengthy e-mail messages.

As great as the "giant screen" sounds, the idea of simply stretching an application across two screens really doesn't do the concept justice. In fact, those who are simply looking for a large screen might be happier with another device, because the Surface Duo's screens are not frameless. This means that when an application is stretched across the two screens, there will be a line (the device frame) in the middle of the screen. As such, you probably wouldn't want to try spanning a media player across two screens and watching a movie.

My guess is that Microsoft, and maybe even some third-party developers, will code applications specifically for the Surface Duo. Such applications may be able to span screens, but do so in a way that takes full advantage of the Surface Duo's screen layout.

While I'm not quite ready to order a Surface Duo for myself, I am certainly curious to take it for a test drive. Depending on my experience with the device, I might even finally retire my badly aging Windows Phone.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 19-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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