Foldable phones are a hot topic in the mobile market but they are still far from something that most consumers will be able to use, let alone afford. It will be quite a while before flexible screens become reliable and durable enough to meet the standards of those who can afford them. In the meantime, a different breed of foldable phones, those with dual screens, is sparking up some interest, especially with Microsoft’s long-awaited Courier, or Surface Duo rather. That admittedly eccentric and niche phone runs the risk of becoming a spectacular dud unless Microsoft takes the time to learn from LG’s dual screen foray.
A long time coming
The Surface Duo and its Windows 10X sibling, the Surface Neo, embodies the fulfillment of a dream that is more than ten years in the making. Back in 2008, the idea of the Microsoft Courier was not only innovative, it was also revolutionary. Today, it sounds more like a fantasy and a possibly pointless endeavor, especially when the likes of the ZTE Axon M, the LG V50 ThinQ, and, now, the LG G8X ThinQ Dual Screen have shown the limits of can be done.
Of course, Microsoft now has the opportunity to learn from all those and do better. It was, in a way, a stroke of genius to pre-announce the two devices more than a year before they launch. Microsoft can’t really claim originality and the Courier concept has been around for a decade now with barely anyone trying, much less succeeding, in making it work. Microsoft is in a unique position to make it work, but it can also fail terribly if it doesn’t make good use of its time and resources.
A clear narrative
The thing that helped spark interest and imagination in the Microsoft Courier was not just the idea of a device with two screens that folds like a notebook. More than just the hardware, it was the experience that presented it as more than just a fancy tech demo. It wasn’t really a general-purpose device, or at least not the way it was presented. It presented a user story that made people stop and wonder how life would be so much nicer if they had that product.
A limited device probably won’t fly today but doesn’t mean Microsoft should just throw in everything it can and advertise it as that. Microsoft needs to have compelling user stories and use cases that will make people actually spend $2,000 or more on such a device. It should go beyond mere multi-tasking, gaming, or even larger screens, especially considering that seam in the middle. And for that, Microsoft will have to make sure that the software is up to par.
Apps, apps, apps
Microsoft recently put out its first public call for developers to dip their toes into the upcoming dual screen Surfaces and there it assured both developers and users that regular apps will work just fine on the new devices. While that inspires a bit of confidence in the products, it won’t excite anyone. For that, Microsoft will have to really put in more effort than simply giving developers the tools to adapt their existing apps to this future that Microsoft is envisioning.
In fact, the best scenario would be if developers didn’t have to do anything at all. One of the problems of the LG G8X is that very few apps support the Dual Screen special features. Developers may not be motivated to even lift a finger for a platform or feature that may not stand the test of time. Given Microsoft’s record when it comes to mobile technology, it’s definitely not reassuring.
Of course, it will probably be technically impossible for Microsoft to do all the work itself. Its best bet is to make sure that the Surface Duo and Surface Neo launch with a strong set of apps and experiences that go beyond the usual Microsoft products. In addition to writing its own special apps, Microsoft needs to use its clout to get the big names to jump on board. Adobe’s Photoshop for the Surface Neo, Amazon Kindle readers for both devices, and, maybe, even Google’s Chrome and YouTube. In other words, it needs to offer an experience no other device has and, by this time, dual screens and foldables no longer a unique element.
Tech specs: light but heavy-duty
That’s not to say Microsoft can forget about the hardware. In fact, as both Samsung and LG have proven, the wrong hardware can ruin a dream just as badly. Fortunately, Microsoft has proven it can actually make fine and beautiful devices. And, fortunately, it doesn’t have to wrestle with fragile flexible screens.
It does, however, need to strike a balance between beauty and durability, lightweight construction and reliable performance. Unlike the LG G8X, users won’t be able to separate the two screens so it needs to be comfortable to hold and carry. At the same time, the Surface Neo and Surface Duo still need to have enough processing power to carry out its tasks and large enough batteries not to die out in the middle of the day.
The Surface Neo and Surface Duo could be 2020’s most notable devices, even with one or two foldable phones coming between now and then. Microsoft has a chance to redeem its name in the mobile market and to prove it can still innovate after the first Surface tablets. Hopefully, it won’t squander that opportunity and give another half-hearted and half-baked device.