Foldable future: How Microsoft hopes to define a new hardware category with Surface Neo and Duo

Microsoft's Windows-based Surface Neo and Android-based Surface Duo are a glimpse of the dual-screen, foldable devices that will redefine the laptop, tablet, and phone markets.

Foldable future: How Microsoft hopes to define a new hardware category with Surface Neo and Duo

At its Surface event this week, Microsoft announced updates to its existing Surface products (Surface Laptop 3 and Surface Pro 7), a new tablet (Surface Pro X), and two foldable devices (Surface Neo and Surface Duo), which won't be released until the 2020 holiday season. I spoke with ZDNet editor-in-chief Larry Dignan about Microsoft's Surface announcements and where they are leading the company in the future. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

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Bill Detwiler: So, Larry, let's get right to it. What did you think of the updates to the existing Surface products? 

Larry Dignan: I thought the updates were pretty solid. I mean, I think the biggest thing for IT shops is just that they're making them more serviceable, which means you'll be able to take them apart, upgrade memory, things like that. That sounds like a pretty basic thing, but it'll be really big for corporations.

But the thing that really got me was sort of at the end, where Microsoft kind of went full Osborne effect and outlined a couple products that'll be coming out in holiday 2020. They were basically showing off stuff that's more than a year away. 

Microsoft goes foldable with Surface Neo and Surface Duo

Bill Detwiler: Right, so you're talking about the Surface Duo and the Surface Neo. These dual-screen, foldable devices that seem to be a cross between a phone and a PC. 

Larry Dignan: Yeah, I mean, the Surface Neo was the one that is dual-screen, and it has this cool magnetic keyboard and that kind of folds over it. That one looks pretty useful. And that one is closest to that sort of Surface vibe they have where you're basically combining tablets and laptops and all that kind of stuff. And that would run on something called Windows 10X, which is sort of that next-generation Windows.

What's really got me though was the one where they announced the Duo, which is a small-screen version of the Neo, except it runs on Android. So that device is a phone. And yet what was interesting was the Microsoft executives were basically saying, "Yeah, some of the leaks were right about the Android phone. And we know you're going to write about this as if it's a phone. But we want you to think beyond that a little bit."

And when they showed it in practice, it was kind of hard to tell what it was, right? It was a little bit of a tablet, little bit of a phone. It's a little bigger. But what I liked about it from a dual-screen perspective is that it had a hinge, right? So it wasn't like the Galaxy Fold where it's sort of this thing you got to hope the screen bends the right way and all that. This seemed a much more solid option for me.

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Bill Detwiler: And it also has a 360-degree hinge. So it allows you to tent the device if you want to view videos in landscape mode, so it doesn't always have to be in portrait mode. And like you said, it also seems much more rugged and less prone to hardware failure like we saw with the announcements on the Samsung Fold and then the re-released version that just came out.

Larry Dignan: Yeah, and the other thing that resonated with me was that it runs on Android and has all the Play apps and all that. Because what I do know is a lot of folks who are in that Microsoft universe, they're running on Android. Android has turned out to be the best Microsoft phone they can have. So it's kind of interesting that they put this out a year ahead of time, because they want developers to work on them and come up with new use cases and all that. But I kind of like the idea of Microsoft and Google collaborating on a device because it provides that bridge that makes a lot of sense.

Now a lot of this will come down to the specs. At the end of the day, you're still going to want a good camera and all that. But this feels like it's a new category, right? It's definitely not a foldable kind of category. Like I wouldn't call the Galaxy Fold a smartphone really. It sort of is one, but yet not. The Surface Duo seems to push that even farther.

Microsoft wants Surface devices to support user "flow" from screen to screen and app to app

Bill Detwiler: And that's something that you and I have talked about before. As business professionals, we're really looking for that sweet spot between a tablet, a PC, laptop and a phone, a device that is usable maybe in all those situations. And we've sort of gotten there halfway with DeX on Samsung devices and with the iPad on Apple devices. This, like you said, does feel to me, as someone who's been around hardware for 20 years, as something that is different.

Larry Dignan: Yeah, and the other thing that was interesting about what Microsoft was talking about was they talked about "flow" a lot, right? So when you think about it, we all have multiple devices. We're changing, you know, we're uploading data or text to someplace. We're basically always uploading something or we always have some distraction to get us away from what we're trying to accomplish. So this idea of a dual-screen device that can sort of keep you in that flow and keep you working is quite appealing to me.

I don't know if the software will live up to that ethos, really. But I think that idea of "flow" is something that software and hardware makers are going to need to address, because frankly we just got too many screens and too many distractions and too much of just everything. So, I think that makes sense.

Bill Detwiler: Yeah, and speaking of software, I think that's really important. Did you see anything at the event that made people who weren't already in a Microsoft ecosystem, if you're not already using Office, if you're not already using One Note, if you're not already using PowerPoint, if you've already made a switch or your enterprise has made a switch to Google apps, to Android devices, to Apple devices, was there anything here that you think might bring people back? Or is it really still for people who are already in the Microsoft ecosystem?

Larry Dignan: I honestly think, I don't think anybody's in one camp or the other, right? So I use G Suite a ton. I still use Office a ton, right? So I don't really think it's an either-or world. You might use G Suite in your personal life and you might use office at work. Or increasingly you wind up using Office in your personal life and G Suite at work. Either way, I think these things coexist based on what works better, right?

So, just say, if you're doing a corporate presentation, you're probably using PowerPoint. You can't get out of it, right? You know, Word and sharing Google Docs and collaborating, that's a different ball game, right? You might use both. So you look at these things that are almost, you know, they're sweets, but you're still picking and choosing what makes more sense to you.

And I think that's what makes that Microsoft [Surface] Duo device interesting. Because I just know in my world I use both. And I'm kind of equal opportunity about it. So I think that device is interesting because it does have a nice hardware design, which happens to be Microsoft, but the fact you can combine Android and Windows apps, which are just fine on an Android device, I think that kind of speaks to a lot of people.

So, I mean, the best Microsoft device right now, in terms of smartphones, is probably the Pixel 4, right? Because you get the latest Android or Pixel 3, I mean 4 is coming, but the Pixel device is a good Microsoft phone. You kind of get the best of both. And I think that's what they're going for with that Duo, and it's pretty interesting.

Now, the problem here is that they're basically tipping off people to what's happening in late 2020. So that's a long wait. And it gives a lot of people a lot of time to figure out how to do it faster. And I think that's the biggest risk here. It's just kind of like what's that world look like a year from now. But as far as buying a smartphone, I saw enough today where I'm kind of like, "Eh, I'm going to wait."

Microsoft's new Surface products designed for knowledge workers

Bill Detwiler: Right. Yeah, you might hold off. And enterprises might hold off until the end of next year to really kind of see what comes out. You know, talking about the future, one of the terms that I heard several times was intelligent edge or this idea of pushing powerful computing onto these edge devices. Also, of course, there was at least more than one reference to cloud services, to Azure. How does that play into the Surface plans Microsoft has for next year? 

Larry Dignan: I think the plans for next year and even the devices they launched today, when you look at the Surface, it's sort of stunning that they're not necessarily enterprise tools yet, right? So you look at the Surface laptop, you don't really see them in corporations much. And that's because of the serviceability and things like that. So I think this is probably start of more enterprise push for those devices, which is kind of funny since it's coming from Microsoft. But I understand why they kind of did the Surface the way they did it though, because you still have these channel conflicts, right? So Dell, Lenovo and HP are still your biggest partners. So it depends on who's going to actually service these Surfaces and the enterprise.

And I think when they're talking about "flow," they're really speaking to knowledge workers. When they're talking about juggling these different apps, they're really talking to corporations. So I think there was a business pivot here or I guess more of a turn into business and enterprise that I think we'll have to watch over the next year.

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By Bill Detwiler

Bill Detwiler is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop support specialist in the ...