Will the Surface Duo’s Stunning Design Be What Holds It Back?

Will the Surface Duo’s Stunning Design Be What Holds It Back?

Past Surface launches give us insight into where the Duo can go from here

Microsoft’s first smartphone in years comes with a plethora of surprising facts. First, it runs Android making it the very first Microsoft hardware device not running a Microsoft operating system. Second, it's a dual-screen device at a time when most manufacturers are trying to innovate with folding screens. Third, it comes with notable omissions such as lacking NFC, wireless charging and multi-camera setup. Lastly, it does all this for the price of $1,400. That’s a decidedly flagship price for a phone missing some crucial flagship specifications.

Of course, the Duo is also no ordinary phone. Early reviews of the Surface Duo’s unique dual-screen hardware have been incredibly positive, with many reviewers noting its impressively thin design and smooth 360-degree hinge. However, reviewers have been instructed not to review the device turned on just yet and that’s understandable considering the Duo’s numerous limitations will become clear once it’s actually being used as a phone.

Will Microsoft be able to continue evolving this form factor with better components like a better camera and bigger battery without making it significantly thicker? If you take the position that this first-generation Surface Duo is about laying out a vision that Microsoft will further refine, there are two existing Surface devices that can serve as examples of how this might play out. The Surface Pro and Surface Book, two devices that blur the lines between laptop and tablet, both represent some of Microsoft’s strongest innovation with new form factors and although one has gone on to achieve success, the other presents a cautionary tale.

Surface Pro: third time’s a charm

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The first-generation Surface Pro. Photo courtesy of Microsoft.

The Surface Pro was initially launched as a niche prosumer counterpart to Microsoft’s ill-fated ARM-based Surface RT tablet. Where the Surface RT was essentially designed to target the iPad and was restricted to running tablet-oriented apps from the Windows Store, the Surface Pro had a full Intel processor and ran Windows 8 Pro, meaning it could run any Windows app you could throw at it.

Of course, Microsoft’s big marketing push was with the Surface RT and at the time, the Pro quietly sat in the background as people tried to understand what this more expensive device was trying to be. Sure, it was much more powerful than the Surface RT but having full PC internals also meant the device was incredibly thick and heavy. It was therefore too uncomfortable to use as a tablet and despite being able to tackle anything a laptop could, its small screen and inability to be used comfortably on your lap meant it also didn’t handle being a laptop very well.

It wasn’t until the Surface Pro 3 that the entire vision of the Surface Pro-line became clear. Rather than the original Surface-line’s target of competing directly with the iPad, the Surface Pro would create its own category entirely of a tablet that could be your laptop. The Pro 3 brought a fully flexible kickstand that could be adjusted to any position, a larger screen, a magnetically angled keyboard and a much thinner form factor that more perfectly balanced the Pro’s tablet and laptop credentials. What resulted was a tablet that, with its optional (but necessary) Type Cover magnetic keyboard attachment, could transform into a credible laptop while retaining the full flexibility of being a tablet.

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The Surface Pro 3 finally perfected the hybrid tablet-laptop form factor. Photo courtesy of Microsoft.

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