In our Jason Squared podcast this week, my co-host, Jason Cipriani, and I discuss all of the new hardware that Microsoft introduced at its September Surface event.
It was quite a spread. The wholly redesigned Surface Pro 8 looks to be a natural enterprise workhorse for workers on the go with its new Thunderbolt 4 connectivity. While not a significant spec bump, Surface Pro X, version 2 got a new Wi-Fi-only, less expensive SKU, making it a little more tempting to jump into the "Arms race" with Windows 11.
The Surface Laptop Studio is a powerhouse monster portable that is a zero-compromise convertible workstation. It's for the most demanding content creation and software development tasks and has me questioning my own current Macbook Pro religion with my next planned laptop purchase.
The Surface Go 3, while lacking the sexiness and power of the other three devices, appears to be a solid, lower-cost convertible tablet solution for families and educational scenarios, rivaling the Chromebook but with all of the flexibility of Windows.
The new Surface Slim Pen 2 ties it all together, with an innovative haptic feedback feature that allows it to mimic the feeling of writing or to sketch on paper -- something that Apple's Pencil cannot do.
And then there is the Surface Duo 2.
In case you don't remember the original, after a long delay, it finally shipped in September of 2020. The dual-screen, 8.1" usable display area, folding Android 10 device was already outdated when it came out -- older Snapdragon 855 processor, anemic RAM, no 5G or WiFi 6, a small battery, monaural speaker, and a single front-facing camera.
The initial software stack to handle multitasking and application windowing was clunky and slow, although the company eventually made tweaks to get it working better. But the damage was done, many were returned, and the product was then offered at fire-sale prices. (It's currently offered from $412 on Amazon.)
The second iteration appears, on the surface, to be a significant improvement with its dual-screen, folding, 8.3" usable display area with 441 PPI, current-generation Qualcomm 888, 8GB RAM, 128GB-512GB storage options, 5G, WiFi 6, larger 4449mAh dual battery unit, stereo speakers, front-facing camera, and triple-lens rear-facing camera array.
In short, it appears to have everything you would want out of a high-end hero smartphone device. There's only one problem -- it starts at $1500 without a trade-in, and while it is a folding unit, it isn't a single seamless display like you find on the Samsung Galaxy Fold 3. And the Samsung Galaxy Fold 3 is lighter, 271g and 0.63 inches (16mm) closed, versus the Duo's 284g and 0.433 inches (11mm). Both are still heavy and thick for a smartphone, but these things also replace tablets.
Mind you, the Samsung Galaxy Fold 3 starts at $1800 without a trade-in, but it has 256GB to start. A similarly-equipped Duo 2 is $1600. So for $200 more, you get a seamless folding screen, and you get to do business with a company that has a lot more experience with Android devices.
If you are the kind of person who will spend $1600 on the phone, you're going to spend $1800 on the phone. I don't see that price difference making or breaking it for either device. What I do see breaking it is Duo's previous reputation for buggy software. The dual-screen thing is much harder to deal with from a software engineering perspective than a stock Android display management system, which is just one screen.
So why, as a consumer, do I want the Duo compared to the Fold? I don't. I understand why Microsoft continues to make this device -- because Microsoft is using this as a learning experience to understand the Android development ecosystem. Even if it only sells tens of thousands of units, if the Duo is its reference standard device in the same way the Pixel is for Google (which also doesn't sell many, but it sells a lot more units than Microsoft does for Duo currently) it is worth the R&D costs to Microsoft from a long-term perspective.
But as a prospective Android device customer, what can Microsoft do to sway me away from the Galaxy Fold 3? I think it already has what it needs, but it hasn't given me that offer I can't refuse as part of the entire purchase package.
When you configure and buy a Duo 2, Microsoft asks if you want to get it with a Microsoft 365 plan. It offers a Family 15-month subscription for $99 with 6TB of cloud storage and six users or a Personal subscription with one user and 1TB.
How about Microsoft just gives away a Family sub, with three years, along with an XBOX Cloud and Game Pass Ultimate for the same duration? With the condition that you have to be an active Duo user? And for corporate customers, give them similar entitlements for their executive and fleet-issued devices.
Now, this looks a heck of a lot more attractive. Like maybe, as the head of a household, I might want to pick up a few Surface Go 3s for my kids instead of a Chromebook or an iPad, and an Xbox Series X for my living room instead of a PlayStation or something else.
When I worked at Microsoft in technical sales for its cloud division, we referred to this as the "starburst." Competitive sales by getting customers to invest more into your ecosystem.
Suddenly, Microsoft has something that rivals Apple One in the service bundling all-you-can-eat buffet business. And if I wanted to make the deal even sweeter, I would consider partnering with a music streaming service, such as Spotify, which is Microsoft's existing music partner, to give my Duo customers something even more compelling. There are other partners that I might consider pulling in for this, such as Amazon, for video and other content.
In my discussions about this with our Microsoft columnist, Ed Bott, he feels that many of Microsoft's addressable customers with the Duo already have 365 subs, so giving away the user entitlements doesn't mean much. I get it. But many consumers do not have Office and don't own Microsoft stuff at all. To me, that's the group of customers Microsoft needs to think about capturing.
He agrees that Xbox Game Pass would be a great perk, but would it be enough? Maybe one of the hosted security service SKUs? A private Windows desktop on Azure? There have to be a few things in that portfolio, and partner relationship bag of stuff Microsoft can throw into the mix to make this deal sweeter if it isn't 365.
The value proposition of the Duo, he feels, is that the Office integration and experience on Duo is better than any other device, such as the ability to have an Outlook message pane on the left screen while having message windows on the right. Similarly, you can do the same thing with PowerPoint, with speaker notes on the left and slides on the right being sent to a larger display.
He says that I have to use a Duo to "get" the Duo. But without an incentive for me to try it in the first place, we aren't closing the deal. By the way, Ed did not keep his original Duo, even after he "got" it.
And yes, I realize Samsung is one of its enterprise partners, and bundling is a tricky antitrust beast to navigate. However, we aren't talking antitrust level numbers at hundreds of thousands or millions of units, anyway, because the addressable market size is in the billions.
What does Microsoft want to be when it grows up? Does it truly want to be in the cutthroat mobile device business or not? Figure out the equivalent SKU cost if someone wants 365 and a Samsung phone that badly. Compound the subscriptions for Duo into the trade-in costs, or develop an aggressive subscription cost for Duo people (as Apple does with its customers) if you cannot just give it away.
Figure out the starburst, Microsoft. Identify the "op." Give the Duo customers an offer they cannot refuse.