Two Screens and a Cover: Surface Duo and Surface Neo

March 20, 2020 Reed Wiedower

After the Microsoft hardware (and software) event in New York City in October, I saw many folks on Twitter dividing into two camps:

  1. Those who believed the new Surface Duo phone represented a big change
  2. Those who felt the new Surface Neo computer was a bigger paradigm shift

The difference between these two groups was fairly stark. Those on Team Neo argued that although Duo was an interesting phone, it did little to disrupt the existing Apple / Google duopoly on touch-enabled applications. Only by launching a pure touch device, designed for touch-friendly applications, purchased through the Microsoft Store, could Microsoft begin to construct a viable ecosystem. By providing it to developers a year in advance, and then enticing its OEM partners to come along, Microsoft could begin to attack the app gap head on.

The alternate vision, which I’ll label Team Duo,  argued simply that although having two screens on a phone device was a useful addition for multiple scenarios, doing so on a computer didn’t add any functionality, and was merely being done because other OEMs were testing out that form factor. Some folks interpreted this change (adoption of an Android phone) to mean Windows was being thrown to the side, but I disagree with this take: it’s a tactical move designed to shore up Microsoft’s position in the phone space, but doesn’t indicate any change in the huge amount of resources being thrown onto the Windows (and Core OS) side.

So yes, I agree with both sides to a large degree. Both devices do augment moves by Microsoft to stay not just relevant, but ahead of the competition and in a thought leadership position. The one area I think neither cover, to a large degree, is the very prosaic premise of both devices – that folks will want to use a device that contains two screens, and can be completely covered when not in use.

This is not a position other manufacturers outside of the laptop space have taken. Samsung and Huawei have both built phones that contain bendable displays, but importantly, both mirror the current desire to have some sort of “outer” display, when the phone is folded into a smaller mode. Although Samsung’s relatively small outer display is paltry, it’s still an external display. Obviously the majority of Android and iOS devices today feature at least one, if not two, glass screens, which can only be protected by purchasing an ugly plastic case as a shield.

That ubiquity – of an external display or a glass front and back- is something that has broadly produced challenges in the marketplace today. As folks are slowing down their cell phone purchases (and as the prices continue to rise for top of the line phones) this means people are replacing their cell phones not every one to two years, but every three to five years. And that means one thing for folks without cases (and some with!): scratches and cracks of displays.

This is a relatively new problem. Most folks, if they shattered a display ten years ago, would simply go replace their phone. But these days, due to the expense of a new phone, many simply bite the bullet and continue to use their cracked phone. It’s also the reason that many tablet manufacturers sell cover-like keyboards to protect their displays: the concept of purchase a new Surface Pro, without one, seems without merit. Even non computing workloads, such as e-readers, are frequently sold with cases or covers to protect the screens from accidental damage.

The world then divides between the few who purchase cases and have uncracked, but hidden screens, and the vast majority of folks who don’t purchase cases, have an accident, and walk around for months if not years with large visible cracks on their phone.

In this environment, folks were clearly used to having their device be protected. And that, I think, is actually a compelling use case for both the Surface Neo and the Duo. It’s not that I’m in love with devices that fold – but if something is going to give me twice as much screen space, I want to have a protective cover on it that prevents damage. And both the Neo and the Duo (at least as they are being presented today, almost a year in advance!) allow me to fold them up safely, throw them into a pocket or a bag, and never have to worry about their screens being broken, even if dropped in the closed position.

It may be that the Neo is too large, even when folded, to allow me to travel without a bag of any sort. And while it contains eSIM functionality right out of the gate, it won’t allow me to completely ditch my phone until that app gap is closed. Until then, both devices look appealing to someone whose been through a lot of broken screens and heartaches over the years. More protection = better value.

That’s a value proposition that I think most folks can get behind–in about a year!

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