Microsoft Surface Duo: Android failure is not an option

When Microsoft's dual-screen, Android-powered Surface Duo reaches the market, will it be a triumph after years of mobile failures from the company, or will we confirm once and for all that Microsoft is incapable of learning from previous mistakes?
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

After a year of winding down support, in December 2019, Windows 10 Mobile, Microsoft's grand experiment at a home-grown smartphone operating system, will officially reach its end of life

Never fully embraced

The very last mass-market Microsoft and OEM-produced Windows 10 Mobile devices were released in February 2016. It was the end of the line for a series of products that never managed to achieve critical mass. Many attributed its failure to a bungled $7.2 billion acquisition of Nokia that became the swan song of the company's outgoing CEO, Steve Ballmer, although it's also possible the Nokia deal merely extended the pain for a year or two beyond its normal endpoint.

It was a product line incoming CEO Satya Nadella inherited but never fully embraced. Also, it became evident, as time went on, that Windows 10 Mobile never really got the attention within Microsoft it truly deserved to make it a success. The company's inability to communicate a compelling and cohesive software development strategy for Windows 10 Mobile (as well as for Windows 10 native apps) to its partners resulted in an absolute mess it never rebounded from.

Microsoft licked its mobile wounds and moved on. Instead of selling its own mobile devices, it became platform-agnostic by writing dozens of excellent apps for both Android and iOS, such as Outlook, OneDrive, and Office 365. Moreover, it engaged in partnerships with mobile device companies like Samsung, which preloaded Microsoft's apps.

It continued to invest in research and development of new Windows hardware, such as the Surface line of mobile devices and desktop systems, as well as the Surface Hub line of interactive whiteboards and HoloLens mixed-reality headsets. But hopes of a new Microsoft-branded smartphone among Windows 10 Mobile fans, many of whom were resigned to using Android devices and iPhones instead, were utterly dashed. 

A day to remember

October 2 will be remembered either as the day Microsoft triumphed over adversity and its prior failures, or the day we discovered it was incapable of learning from previous mistakes.

Microsoft unveiled the Surface Duo, an unusual dual-screen mobile device that transcends the smartphone/phablet/tablet categories. It has two 5.6-inch displays that expand to an 8.3-inch device, which enables its users to unfold it (like a book) and use it with a single screen configuration (like a phablet), or they can use both displays at the same time (like a tablet). They can also use it with a keyboard snapped over one screen to form a tiny PC-like device.

The two screens aren't the most shocking aspect of the product, which will be released in a year during the holiday season of 2020. There have been dual-screen smartphones before. The jaw-dropper is it runs not on Windows but instead on Google's Android.

It doesn't just run vanilla Android using the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), or even a specialized fork like Amazon uses on its Fire OS tablets. The Surface Duo will be a fully authorized, licensed Android OEM device with Google Play and Play Services on it.

With the Surface Duo, Microsoft will compete with the likes of Samsung, LG, Lenovo, and other Chinese firms like Huawei, ZTE, and OnePlus -- a very well-established group of device vendors that have already carved out significant market share. Not to mention Google itself, with the Pixel.

Naturally, due to its previous failures with Windows 10 Mobile and with its Lumia hardware, there will be much trepidation about dealing with Microsoft not only as a smartphone vendor but also as an Android OEM. Many dyed-in-the-wool Microsoft fans I spoke to were burned by the Windows Phone and Windows 10 Mobile and are reluctant to give the company a second chance with a smartphone. Microsoft has to make the Surface Duo an enormous success; otherwise, it needs to pack up and go home.

Unanswered questions

There is a lot about the Surface Duo we do not know yet. Basic hardware specifications, for starters. Which chip-set will it use? The off-the-shelf Qualcomm Snapdragon (presumably the 865), or a custom SQ-series chip like the Surface Pro X features? Will it have integrated 5G at launch? What screen technology will it use? What type, and how many cameras, and what sort of machine learning capabilities will its imaging system have? Memory and storage? Which version of Android will it use -- 10 or 11? What is this thing going to cost? $1,000? $2,000? Nobody knows.

A year is a very long time in the technology industry. It's also long enough there could be any number of unforeseeable delays -- or the company could cancel the product outright if there isn't enough anticipated demand.

All these issues aside, let's talk about the broader concerns I have as a potential Surface Duo customer which I am sure are not unique.

A model Android OEM

How does Microsoft make the Duo a huge success? Well, in my opinion, it has to become a model Android OEM. That means it has to do a better job of being a citizen of the overall Android community than the established vendors are, such as Samsung.

If this is, in fact, the same Android every other OEM licenses -- presumably with Microsoft's "skin" and Launcher on it as well -- how often does Microsoft plan to update and patch it? With Windows 10 Mobile, Microsoft at least had control of its operating system. But with Android, its upstream OS technology supplier is Google. 

Also, we know Microsoft is not just going to load generic Android with the Play Store on it, as Google does with its Pixel or an Android One licensee might. If it is licensing Google Play Services and support from Google to be an Android OEM, then it is going to make significant modifications to customize the experience and integrate it with its products, just as Samsung does with its phones. Ultimately, this has to be recognizable as a Microsoft computing device.

As we have experienced with all of the major Android OEMs, updating their products with patches and major version upgrades is problematic. With most, you're lucky if you get the security patches and bugfixes implemented within weeks of Google releasing them. If you happen to get one major Android version upgrade over the lifetime of these devices, that's about the best you can expect from any of them. 

If you want yearly OS updates over a five-year support period, then get an iPhone. If you wish to have yearly updates for a few years, then get a Google Pixel. 

There's no reason why these Android OEMs cannot update and upgrade the software on these devices on a timely basis -- but they are unmotivated because they want to sell you new stuff instead. Frankly, I think all of them lack the software development discipline to maintain something as complicated as a mobile OS across multiple product lines. They aren't mature companies in that regard

Microsoft, on the other hand, has more than 40 years of experience when it comes to maintaining software development environments and OS builds, and it has added to its reputation with superb support for open-source software in recent years. Only Apple can boast that kind of longevity. Android is not Microsoft's product, but I believe Microsoft can succeed with supporting Duo's software stack where others have failed in supporting their own. 

I would love to have an alternative Android option to the Pixel with a trustworthy software upgrade and maintenance path. That could be the Surface Duo and other Surface smartphone products if they come to fruition. 

A brief history of Microsoft's Surface: Missteps and successes

Quite frankly, at the price point I expect the Duo to be at, it had better have at least a four-year maintenance cycle -- particularly when you consider that, as an OS, Android itself may be replaced within five years with Fuchsia. Exactly how Microsoft intends to deal with that transition, just as any other Android OEM will, is anyone's guess.

Pretty please, Microsoft

In a unique mobile device like the Duo, there are bespoke tools I would like to see from Microsoft, such as security privacy controls for Android. The company also has Intune on its cloud for mobile device management it could roll out for free to every consumer Surface Duo user, and, of course, a premium version for business and enterprises.

How about Azure Active Directory/Microsoft account authentication for Duo devices? Enterprises would love having single sign-on out of the box for all the Microsoft apps preloaded on their Android phones. I wanted this yesterday.

I want auditing and logs on Android, too. I want to know precisely when Android phones home to Google, and what data is transferred. Microsoft, please give me a Windows Server-style event log and services manager for Android, and the ability to disable and lock services down, selectively, at a granular level. I don't trust that Google's built-in privacy and security controls are looking out for me no matter how I configure them.

There are some additional concerns that, at some point, Microsoft needs to address, and it should happen sooner than later. With the company adopting Android for its smartphones and having containerized Win32 and UWP apps on Windows on x86 and ARM for its Surface Neo and Surface Pro X tablets, what sort of mixed message does that send to its developer ecosystem? 

As it is, Windows 10 X/WCOS for x86 and Windows on ARM appear to have enough differences that they are not identical development targets, at least at this stage in their development. The Surface implementation of Android adds yet another environment that Microsoft's traditional Windows developers and existing Android developers need to worry about and consider supporting.

Also, given that Microsoft has no control over the application admissions process on the Google Play Store, what does that mean for developers who want to take advantage of capabilities on the device and extensions that will be specific to the Surface Androids?

That's why I think it is now more important than ever for Microsoft to launch its Android app store. Because it needs a home for developer partners, which are chasing apps for enterprises that aren't within Google's core competency. Could it do this on its own? Sure. However, as I have said, Amazon is a natural partner for this activity, and I expect whatever Google partnership Microsoft has engaged in to launch the Duo isn't likely to persist for the long term.

Many of us would like to disable Google Play Services altogether due to a lack of trust with the company. What if I only want Microsoft and partner apps, Microsoft accounts, and Office 365

Microsoft, please give us a robust and capable Android device enterprises and consumers can use securely, with confidence and trust. That's precisely how you will win back the loyalty (and business) of customers looking for mobile devices.

Can Microsoft make the Surface Duo on Android a success, or will it be a repeat performance of Windows 10 Mobile and the Lumia? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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