MicrosoftMicrosoft is returning to making phones this week, as part of an ambitious project to usher in a new era of dual-screen and folding devices.
By Dieter Bohn / The Verge
The company has spent around six years developing Surface Duo, its Android-powered device that folds out to be a phone or a miniature tablet. It’s taken Microsoft years to get the hardware and software right, but the company firmly believes now is the ideal time for something new. When it goes on sale tomorrow, we’ll see if the company got it right.
This is the story of how Microsoft’s new folding Android phone came to be.
POCKETABLE AND MINI SURFACES
Panos Panay, Microsoft’s chief product officer, is known for his onstage energy and for constantly feeling pumped, but when it came time to build his dream Moleskine-like device, he spent months walking around in secret with a peculiar piece of hardware in his pocket. “We literally had two pieces of metal and a hinge that we put together,” explains Panay in an interview with The Verge. “We had this piece of metal that I carried around in my pocket for months.”
It was the early and primitive form for what eventually became the Surface Duo, and Panay spent months analyzing things like “fidget factor” and measuring how often he opened and closed the device. “Does it fit in your pocket? Can you sit on it? How big would the screen have to be if it wasn’t a traditional slab you were holding every day?” were some of the many questions he and his team were looking to answer.
Panay has been thinking about a pocketable or a small Surface device for years, even describing the idea as his “baby” at one point, but it was a painful journey to get to the Surface Duo. Work began on the Duo just after Microsoft had canceled the Surface Mini, an eight-inch tablet running Windows. Microsoft had been planning to launch this smaller Surface, but it ultimately wasn’t the right time back in 2014.
A SMALL SURFACE WAS PANAY’S DREAM FOR YEARS
“It was emotional to stop,” says Panay. “Products are a reflection of the people that make them, that’s how we talk as a team. These products become who you are at work, and we spend a lot of time at work.”
If there’s anything that Microsoft has learned from trying to harmonize Surface hardware and software, it’s that timing is everything. “One of things that we’ve really developed a strong muscle for is the ability to know timing for when a product is right,” explains Steven Bathiche, who oversees all hardware innovation for Microsoft devices like Surface, Xbox, and HoloLens. “Timing is a thing I’ve learned is the most important thing, it’s more important than the idea itself in fact. All the ingredients really have to be right. This is probably why in the past you haven’t seen some of these ideas really make it through.”
That’s why the Surface Mini never launched. “Mini just wasn’t right because it didn’t have the apps for the form factor,” explains Panay. “There were a lot of challenges for Mini. I still have my Mini, it’s running Windows RT, but it didn’t have everything it needed for that form.” Surface Mini would have run Windows, which meant apps would have needed to be updated for the form factor, and the size and OS choice meant you’d still have to carry around a mobile phone.
While the Surface Mini cancellation was painful, it was an important part of the history of the Surface Duo and influenced what hardware choices were made. Microsoft moved on to a device codenamed “Andromeda” before shifting to the Surface Duo. While the Surface team is reluctant to talk about Andromeda in detail, sources tell The Verge it was a similar dual-screen device that was thicker and bulkier than the Surface Duo. Microsoft had planned to run a custom variant of Windows on Andromeda, and the camera hardware was also different to what exists in the Duo.
“At that time, it was different hardware, it’s not the same hardware… it’s not even remotely close,” says Panay. The key principles of Surface Duo existed in Andromeda, though: two screens side by side, with a hinge that allowed the device to fold out into place. “We’re in so many generations later of development [with Surface Duo], we understand how thin it is, we understand reliability, we understand the robustness of the screens. It has been generationally made, it’s years in the making.” More
By Dieter Bohn / The Verge