Surface Neo: How Microsoft's two-screened tablet updated a ten-year-old idea

Surface Neo extends a vision that the company had a decade ago, but on Windows' terms.

Foldable future: How Microsoft hopes to define a new hardware category with Surface Neo and Duo ZDNet's Larry Dignan and TechRepublic's Bill Detwiler discuss why Microsoft's Windows-based Surface Neo and Android-based Surface Duo are just a glimpse at the dual-screen, foldable devices that will redefine the laptop, tablet, and phone markets. Read more: https://zd.net/2oEa5Zj

In my last column, I discussed the pros and cons of Surface Neo's dual-screen approach versus a folding one. But Microsoft has been thinking about dual-screen tablets long before folding displays became a viable option. Company trivia buffs might also think of Neo as the reincarnation of Courier, a proposed two-screened device I mentioned when writing about the (still) slow adoption of folding screens in the PC space and wrote more about elsewhere when its demonstration video leaked a decade ago. The Courier offered at least some of the gestures of the Neo but in a product that seemed more like a more appliance-like environment. Like the vision of Apple's 1980s Knowledge Navigator concept video, much of what was shown in the Courier videos has come to be, but in a different way than envisioned.

Surface Neo was surely inspired by Courier but adds in some lessons from the Surface family. For one, Microsoft will be happy to accommodate keyboards so far into the future that the mutated cockroaches who replace us will have the option of using them with Surface devices. For now, the one that Microsoft has on tap for the Surface Neo covers only about two-thirds of the 9-inch screen upon which it can rest.

Microsoft supports it in two positions when used atop the display. (It can also be used off the device as a standard Bluetooth keyboard.) Aligned with the far side of the "bottom" display in landscape orientation, the excess screen real estate below will smartly offer a touchpad. Aligned with the near side of that screen, though, it opens a number of possibilities, such as a place to dock other apps (Microsoft demonstrated leaving Netflix in that area) or what Microsoft calls the Wonderbar. Conceptually, it's a bit like the Touch Bar on some MacBooks. However, it offers both more real estate and more flexibility than Apple's Touch Bar. And perhaps more importantly, borrowing an iPhone hallmark, it doesn't permanently dedicate that area to buttons or whatever else may inhabit the Wonder Bar.

But Microsoft will nonetheless face a similar challenge to Apple in terms of getting developers to support the Wonder Bar alongside the rest of the Windows 10X features. The company's last foray in getting developers to support a very different kind of supplemental screen, Windows Vista's SideShow, was dragged down in part by that operating system's poor reception. Unlike the case for SideShow, there should not be any extra hardware costs for PC makers beyond support for the Windows 10X platform. However, a keyboard like the kind Microsoft has proposed as a separate accessory may dampen support for its support on an embryonic platform.

Indeed, much of the success of the Surface Neo and similar products Microsoft expects in the category will come down to the capabilities and execution of Windows 10X. Alas, Microsoft has a poor track record with such device-specific offshoots, including Windows Tablet Edition, Windows Media Center Edition, Windows 10 Mobile and Windows RT. Add to this that Microsoft faces an additional challenge here trying to preserve as much consistency as possible with the Android implementation on the Surface Duo.

On the other hand, the few peeks of Windows 10X that Microsoft offered at the Surface event seemed streamlined and promising; few details have been released about the new version of Windows that will be optimized for two-screen devices. Microsoft also now has a more modular approach to Windows than it did for any of those offshoots. And then there is the x-factor of first-party support, presumably out of the gate, Microsoft previously designed new variations of Windows with a primary focus on third parties. But the Surface Neo represents what may be the first version of Windows designed from the start with an eye toward optimizing for the company's own hardware. It's in the driver's seat, looking ahead through a two-paned window.

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