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Microsoft’s dual-screen phone will live or die by the apps

Microsoft’s dual-screen phone will live or die by the apps


Will the past repeat itself?

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We’re all still sort of reeling from the news that Microsoft is back to making phones again — and because it’s basing them on Android. I’ve already written once about some thoughts I have about the confluence of Android, Google, and Microsoft, but there is so much history here that there’s much more to say.

I really can’t get over Microsoft making an Android phone, not after all the angst it went through trying to make Windows Mobile work, then Windows Phone, then buying Nokia, then... alright I won’t get into the whole story here — because the end of it is that it was Android (not the iPhone) that definitely beat Windows Phone.

Android, by the way, only exists because Google’s old CEO Eric Schmidt was worried that Microsoft was going to take over smartphones and become the de-facto alternative to the iPhone.

Schmidt saw it as an existential threat to Google, because if Microsoft won mobile then nobody would use Google’s services on phones. I made a Processor video about the whole thing, which was revealed in email evidence from a court case.

Now the tables have been one hundred percent turned, and Android is so dominant that Microsoft had no choice but to adopt it. So it’s making an Android phone — or will be in 2020, at least. That’s left some calling the Surface Duo vaporware and sure, technically that’s true, but it’s also true that it’s heading out to developers soon — this thing is coming.

But just because I believe that Microsoft is definitely committed to getting the Surface Duo out the door doesn’t mean I believe it will definitely be successful. Far from it — because in order for the Duo to succeed both Microsoft and Google will have to accomplish something that each company has demonstrably spectacularly failed to do several times each in the past decade.

Namely: get developers to make tablet apps.

Petty complaints about the size of the bezels aside, I think the hardware on the Surface Duo looks good. Tom Warren and Nilay sat down with Microsoft’s head of product, Panos Panay, to record a Vergecast episode and also get a second look at the Duo.

Here’s what Tom had to say after spending more time with it:

I got a chance to take a closer look at the Surface Duo this week, and my first impression was simple: it’s so much smaller in person than it appears in photos. I wasn’t allowed to play around with the software on this device, but I was able to slip it into my jeans pocket, and it’s definitely the first pocketable Surface device. It looks and feels like a miniature tablet that’s also a phone.

Panay says that the hardware is locked. So the thing is going to live or die by the software. There are a many places where that can go wrong when you look at the stack. Let’s just enumerate them at a very high level:

1. Can the Android OS handle multiple screens without breaking?

I’m going to go ahead and say yes. Google has been excited to tell me that Android 10 supports multi-screen devices for many months now. I found that excitement mysterious since the only viable device in that category to date has been the Samsung Galaxy Fold — and until recently it was a total disaster.

Now Google’s excitement makes sense. And some of the features built in to the Fold could actually translate well to the Surface Duo. On the Fold, Android is aware of what’s open on the tiny front screen and can automatically switch and resize it on the big, unfolded inside screen without losing your state. That could roughly translate to ensuring an app on one side of the Duo could resize or move across its two screens.

Google has also been working to make Android support resizable windows. On older version of Android, resizing a window literally required restarting the app. That’s not the case anymore — though apps do need to be updated to support arbitrary resizing. More on that below.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

2. Can Microsoft make a customized version of Android that doesn’t suck?

Let’s just take it on faith that Microsoft can pull this off. Normally, the first attempt at an Android skin any manufacturer makes is awful. But Microsoft has been building up to this for some time. It’s been “experimenting” with Android apps for awhile. Beyond well-made versions of Outlook and Office, it has already distributed a custom launcher and various other apps.

Plus, honestly, the stakes are just too high for Microsoft to screw this up. In the early days of Android, a janky skin from Samsung, LG, or HTC wasn’t enough to sink the phone. Nowadays, it would.

Finally, the entire model of Android is more sophisticated about manufacturer customizations. They’re not “skins” anymore, they’re deeply modularized and sandboxed without forking the OS entirely. Android is designed to make it easy for manufacturers to put their own software in without breaking the core OS.

The Android OS update situation will never be as good as iOS, but it’s much better than it used to be.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

3. Will developers update their apps to make them work elegantly on the Surface Duo?

Here’s where things get dicey. For the Duo to work, the apps on it need to be able to elegantly go from one screen to the other. Or they need to be able to elegantly move from a single screen to spanning across both of them. Microsoft has given itself a little more than a year to get developers onboard to get that work done.

The problem is that both Microsoft and Google have a terrible track record when it comes to convincing developers to refactor their apps for new form factors, much less new platforms.

Let’s start with Google. I invite you to search for literally any Android tablet review ever and see what the reviewer has said about app support for big screens. If you do, you will find that from the very beginning to now, the universal complaint about Android tablets is that most apps look like blown-up phone apps.

If Google couldn’t get developers to improve their apps for Android tablets, what are the chances it can get them to update their apps for a weird new dual-screen Surface Duo phone?

There’s another example of a Google failure to point to, unfortunately: Chrome OS. Android apps on Chrome OS run much better than they get credit for, but that’s not saying much. Too many of them show up in weird, tiny little portrait windows that can’t be resized like normal windows. The same code that makes resizing possible should make them work better on the Surface Duo, but too few support that feature.

As for Microsoft, there are two failures. The first is maybe unfair to keep bringing up, but here it is: Windows Phone bombed in large part because it didn’t have the apps. It’s unfair because as a distant-third player, the platform was fighting an uphill battle for developer support in the first place.

Still: Windows Phone was a fast, elegant, smart OS and Microsoft poured significant resources into getting developers to support it and failed. The Surface Duo looks like a fast, elegant, smart device too.

The second failure is the Universal Windows Platform. This one isn’t a total whiff — there are quality apps in the Microsoft App store. But there aren’t as many as there should be at this point. The very fact that even the very fancy new Surface Pro X and Surface Neo still need to include a solutions for running classic win32 apps tells you everything you need to know.

This all reads as very dire, like I’m declaring that neither company is up to the task and the Surface Duo will be dead on arrival. I am not, Both companies have learned from their failures and are much better at developer outreach. Making apps that can work across different screen sizes on Android is much easier now, too.

Most importantly, I think both Google and Microsoft are eager to prove that this time they can get it right and they have the resources to make it happen. Every developer who works to make their app resizable on Chrome OS should find that it works better on the Duo as a result — and vice versa. Plus, frankly, both companies are probably not going to be shy about throwing money at the problem.

We’ve got a full year before the Surface Duo is available. That’s simultaneously a lot of time and no time at all — and if Microsoft is smart, it will spend every minute of it convincing Android developers to support its new phone.

More from Microsoft

+ Microsoft doesn’t think Windows is important anymore

Tom has a whip-smart analysis of what’s going on with Windows, one that’s clear on the history of Nadella de-emphasizing Windows. He also unpacks some of that “Microsoft Graph” stuff that caught my eye:

Windows is still a significant part of Microsoft’s business, but it’s not the future of it. Nadella is signaling that by focusing on the Microsoft Graph, a collection of APIs that connects devices to Microsoft’s cloud services and acts as an important gateway into Windows, Office 365, and Azure. It looks like Microsoft is partnering with Google to connect this Graph deeper into Android.

+ The Surface Pro X and Surface Laptop 3 are upgradable, but only a little

Jay Peters talked to iFixit’s Kyle Wiens about Microsoft’s promise to make the new Surface devices more repairable. It’s laudable, but then again it would have been impossible to make them less repairable.

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