At Surface event, Microsoft's vision for dual screens, productivity was compelling, but can it execute?

Microsoft laid out its vision for integrated software and hardware (and even a bit of Android) along with dual screens to help creatives keep their flow when working. The next year should be interesting.

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Microsoft outlined a compelling vision for productivity, dual-screen devices, and a world where Google and Microsoft can team up to offer one very strong smartphone-meets-tablet device in late 2020. The big question is whether it can execute.

History would indicate that we should maintain a healthy dose of skepticism.

Microsoft upgraded a bevy of Surface devices including the Surface Laptop 3, Surface Pro 7, Surface X, as well as introducing the Surface Neo and Duo -- two devices that won't land until holiday season 2020.

The Surface devices launching soon will be well geared toward business -- especially the Surface Laptop 3 that will actually be serviceable for IT shops, and the specs and pricing were decent.

TechRepublic Cheat SheetsMicrosoft Surface Pro 7 | Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 | Microsoft Surface Duo | Microsoft Surface Neo

But the real conversations were about the Neo and Duo. The Neo is powered by Windows 10X, a platform that is a work in progress, and a hardware system that has two screens and a magnetic keyboard. Simply put, the Neo is a looker and probably a safe bet that Microsoft can work through Windows 10X to provide a good experience.

Panos Panay, head of Microsoft's Devices Group, said Surface Neo is designed to "get you into the device," adapt, and get you "into your flow."

And then there's the Duo, which Panay said is designed to give you the best of Android by Google and Microsoft. Panay, who delivered what was a quirky presentation at times, said the Duo will clearly be a Surface device. He also said that Duo isn't a phone -- even though he gets why people would argue that point.

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"This product brings the best of Microsoft, Google, and Android into one product. It is technology pushing possibilities," said Panay.

Now the dream for users like me is that the best of both Microsoft and Google will be pretty handy. You could argue that the best Microsoft experience is the Google Pixel smartphone, which gets you fast Android updates as well as Microsoft's apps.

But there are questions:

  1. What do the updates for Windows and Android look like in practice?
  2. Will this first-generation hardware hold up after so many foldable issues?
  3. Microsoft is preannouncing products more than a year in advance. Will someone else swoop in?
  4. And Panay rallied developers to the device, but will they follow with kick-ass apps or be torn between two tech giants?

But here's the biggest question of all: The Duo and Neo are supposed to just get out of your way and allow you to be productive. Has Microsoft ever produced Windows or any other piece of software that just got out of your way and receded to the background?

That final question is critical since Microsoft's Panay, CEO Satya Nadella, and other presenters mentioned the word "flow" so many times.

The importance of flow

Flow defined in a knowledge worker context is achieved when you get lost in whatever you're doing. Time stops. Hours fly by. You're creating and on a roll. You have focus.

The problem with flow these days is obvious. There are too many distractions. Too many notifications. Open floor plans. Too many meetings. Interpersonal thrash. Despite a lot of banter about convergence devices our backpacks usually have three screens. Over the last decade, I've only found one device -- Amazon's Kindle -- that recedes in the background for me.

Add it up, and Panos' talk about flow repeatedly had me conflicted. On one hand, he was preaching to the choir. On the other hand, cynic Larry was like, "Umm, and Microsoft is really going to do this?"

The real importance of Microsoft's flow banter is that it could change the conversation in enterprise software. Perhaps developers will actually look to inspire flow. Today, applications are really about grabbing your attention away from what you're trying to do.

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If I were to bet on Microsoft's biggest challenge with building in flow into software and hardware, it with be with the Surface Duo. That device, which will presumably offer the best of Android and Microsoft, has two screens and potentially two software models. Is flow going to be possible when there are multiple unanswered questions about how Android will play on a Microsoft Surface Duo?

Windows 10X to save the day (maybe)

Microsoft's Surface Neo will run on Windows 10X, which as described in Mary Jo Foley's FAQ is "Windows 10, in a more modular form, optimized for dual-screen/foldable devices."

This Windows 10X is supposed to be a new expression of Windows, according to Panay. Microsoft has lined up its Windows hardware partners to create devices for it.

With Windows 10X essentially arriving more than a year from now, Microsoft has some time to work out any issues with its dual-screen plans. Developers will also get to kick the tires.

As for apps, Windows 10X will rely on containers to run various applications. According to Foley, Windows 10X bits are likely to be delivered to testers in that late spring or summer of 2020. Should that timeline play out, there won't be much time to have a battle-tested Windows 10X before the Neo launches.

Will the Neo and Duo land in time?

Now that the software risks are known, it's time to ponder the hardware. Here's what I liked about the Neo and Duo.

  • Both devices had hinges and didn't rely on some newfangled screen material that may be quirky. (See the Galaxy Fold.)
  • Neo seemed more polished and the approach to the keyboard and dual-screen was compelling.
  • Duo looked very interesting and think it could find a market.

When you think through the possibilities, I'd say the Neo looks more like a lock for holiday 2020.

Patrick Moorhead, principal of Moor Insights & Strategy, handicapped the Neo:

I'm fascinated Microsoft pre-announced Neo a year early, but this device needs a lot of application and Windows 10X development work for apps to flow perfectly. Applications and information will need to naturally float from screen to screen that require new gestures, and even the area between the physical keyboard and the display needs to be defined.

Surface Neo seems like the perfect kind of device I could take from meeting to meeting.

Given Microsoft's history with smartphones, the Duo could need more time to bake. There's no guarantee that the third time around the smartphone and mobility track will be the charm. A first-generation Duo purchase would largely depend on price, specs, camera, and features. Microsoft touched on none of these items at its Surface event.

Also: Fold fight! Can Surface Duo deliver more productivity than Galaxy Fold? New Microsoft Surface devices: Prices, release dates, and where to buy 

In any case, Microsoft's launch of Surface Neo and Surface Duo mark an interesting turning point for the company. Forrester analyst Frank Gillett said:

Microsoft's Surface Duo (a Microsoft phone!) and Neo devices are a powerful bid to put Microsoft at the forefront of digital device innovation. These devices help Microsoft capture the attention of developers eager to break out of the constraints of today's smartphone-led ecosystem. Microsoft's announcements put Apple and Google on notice that it will compete fiercely to be the leading provider of personal digital experiences.

Now all Microsoft has to do is execute.