“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars,” or so the saying goes. With Microsoft’s Surface Neo and Duo, the firm certainly aimed high. These two devices represent the future of where Microsoft thinks computing is going, a future it has been slowly creeping towards ever since it debuted the first Surface. Some of the most exciting thing about moonshots is just how dangerous they are. A little tweak here or there, and you end up space debris, floating forgotten in the void.
To begin with, Neo and Duo differ from typical foldables in that they aren’t one piece of flexible display and ergo susceptible to breakage and cracking — well not any more so than any normal devices. They are two distinct screens with the interaction between both screens being handled entirely by software. Think of it as a somewhat permanent dual-monitor set-up. As far as differences between them, the Neo runs Windows and the Duo runs Android and that’s about it. A lot of it has been spilt about how beautiful these devices are. Without any personal experience of these two but with experience of Surface in general, I’ll have to agree that Microsoft does make beautiful hardware products, and these don’t look to be any different.
Neo and Duo face the advantage and disadvantage of the unknown. They carry a huge weight on their shoulders. They are the first of a new breed of foldable devices from Microsoft. Their path to success is something that’s a bit complicated. Microsoft fans would tell you that Neo, Duo, et all are Microsoft’s future, that they’; push it as hard as thy’ like. Yet, Microsoft is a business, they aren’t fools, nor are they besotted fanboys. If an idea does not take off in the market, they will not hesitate to chop it off and discard it. That is what these two represent, a moonshot.
If these foldables fail in the short term, Microsoft will be shelving them and going back to the drawing board as it often does when ambitious projects fail to resonate.
For both of them, and Duo especially, Microsoft also faces external pressures. Foldable, dual-screen devices have been pushed as the next big thing by the tech press, and that puts them in a good light. Yet, with devices from Samsung, Huawei, Xioami coming out, developers and customers would already have had a taste of foldables by the time Microsoft’s products hits the market. If the market rejects these, Microsoft would have to work harder to show why its product is distinct and better than these already rejected ones. If the market accepts rival products like the Galaxy Fold and other rivals, then Microsoft loses the first-mover advantage and would inevitably get compared with their more successful peers rather than being the one to set the stage.
With Windows 10 X and Surface Neo, Microsoft’s Developer Story is simple and complex at the same time. The firm has tried to move developers over to its Universal Windows Platform and has been soundly rejected. Now, it wants to bring the Universal Windows Platform to developers, all apps are Windows apps and can use UWP APIs if they so choose. However, Microsoft still needs developers to adopt new APIs and change their apps meaningfully for the dual displays of the Surface Neo to not just work but to work meaningfully. Microsoft needs Neo to be more than two screens glued together, and whether or not that succeeds depends on developers. But, and this applies to Duo as well, developers are stubborn. If it’s not iOS or the Web, they aren’t there for it.
That being said, both of these devices have one very strong factor on their sides — novelty. No one has ever seen any foldable Windows devices in the wild. No one has ever seen any Android devices like this. They’re cool, they’re shiny, and they have the stink of awesome all over that. For developers, this device could lure them into using it out of curiosity and personally loving them. Developers who love devices tend to make more specialised apps for them, even to the point of overlooking low market share and userbase for a time. Even as Microsoft’s Windows apps failed, it’s hard to deny that the developers who built the most interesting apps or even uninteresting but beautifully designed apps were already engaged with and emotionally invested in the platform. At the same time, that same love of novelty applies to consumers as well. If Microsoft pushes the devices to users, and enough users fall in love with them to the point hat enough users and enough developers are on the platform at once to make it viable quickly enough, then Microsoft would be successful. Yes, this is a large ‘if’. Yes, this would apply to Microsoft’s other failed OS products, all of which offered some novelty or the other. With Windows phones and Windows RT tablets, users had alternatives. With the foldables, they don’t. At least, not yet.
To summarise, Neo and Duo are two cool new devices. Developers haven’t built for any devices like this before. If they manage to sway the hearts of consumers, then the firm would have first-mover advantage in a fluid, nascent market. Something it should appreciate from its previous dalliances with mobile. None of this is to say that Microsoft is guaranteed to succeed or fail. In the end, the worst thing you’ll be able to say about them is that ‘They Tried’.