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What the Surface Duo 2 tells about Microsoft’s ambitions in the smartphone market

What the Surface Duo 2 tells about Microsoft’s ambitions in the smartphone market

September has been a busy month in the tech calendar, and this week saw two big developments: Apple’s iPhone 13 finally hit the worldwide stores including India and Microsoft held its fall event showing off Surface-branded devices including the Surface Duo 2. No matter how exciting the Surface Duo 2 looks, industry experts and tech journalists minutely scrutinised a rather subdued approach Microsoft has taken with its re-entry into the smartphone market.

But what path Microsoft is taking to register its presence in the phone segment and how does the Surface Duo 2 fit in its roadmap to create a futuristic dual-screen device.

When the original Surface Duo was launched last year, Microsoft did not call the device a phone, even though it functioned much like a smartphone. That’s because the Duo looks different from a smartphone with a traditional slab-like design. But things are already looking a bit different this time around with Microsoft clearly pitching the Surface Duo as a legit phone. “We built this phone for people who love power, speed, and beauty,” Shilpa Ranganathan, CVP, Mobile and Cross Device Experiences at Microsoft said while introducing the second-generation Duo. This change in the outlook and the way the Surface Duo 2 is now being marketed is a reflection of how the previous strategy to call the dual-screen device that’s a tablet and phone in one did not go well with consumers. This also shows Microsoft is admitting that the original Duo had a lot of compromises and calling it a true smartphone wasn’t the best idea.

Whether Microsoft admits it or not, the first-generation Surface Duo was a commercial failure. Back in September 2020, the Surface Duo went on sale in the US for a price of $1400 (or approx Rs 1,03,665 excluding local taxes). Within months the price started to drop and the premium device was available for as low as $549 (approx Rs 40,651) on a popular eCommerce platform. In less than a year in the market, the drastic price cuts indicate that the Surface Duo met with a lukewarm response from consumers. While the successive price cuts are one part of the story, the device itself was a subject of criticism; it came with dated hardware, the camera was no match to high-end phones and the issue of buggy software annoyed many. There had been complaints of the build quality too, leading to returns.

Even though reviews are not out yet, the second-generation Surface Duo looks to be a much more polished device. The new model may feature the same design as last year’s device, with two separate screens connected by a hinge, as opposed to one foldable screen seen on the Galaxy Z Fold 3. But there have been improvements made in every corner like the dual 5.8-inch AMOLEDs are a bit larger than the 5.6-inch screens were, they are now slightly curved, meaning less gap between displays; they support 90Hz refresh rate as well, a Glance Bar strip for notifications, 5G support, NFC for mobile payments, stereo speakers, and the latest the Snapdragon 888 platform.

Perhaps one big feature that is a welcome change is a set of improved cameras. In fact, there are three of them on the Duo 2: a f/1.7 12-megapixel telephoto lens, a f/2.4 12MP wide lens, and a third 16MP ultrawide camera, with optical image stabilization. There’s a night mode, portrait mode and HDR, and it can record up to 60 frames per second at 4K plus record slow-mo. It’ll come in 128GB, 256GB, and 512GB models and all will have 8GB of RAM. The device also works with Microsoft’s Slim Pen 2 which charges magnetically with the Duo 2 when it’s in a Duo 2 charge case.

While the hardware is totally refreshed, Microsoft is still sticking to dual screens and has once again worked with Google on the Duo 2. Sure, a foldable screen is superior compared to a dual-screen but this whole premise of a two-screen device makes a lot of sense. For instance, if you are a social media manager of a brand, you can open Facebook and Twitter at the same time on two different screens. This approach is seamless and while you can multitask on the Galaxy Z Fold 3, the experience is not of that level.

On Duo, there is no process as such and the interaction feels natural. Opening two apps at the same time does not suffer from a weird aspect ratio, plus with the Fold, many Android apps are not optimised for the foldable screen. With the Duo, there is no such problem. The Duo is also great for specific use cases, like, when you have to drag one content from one screen to another. On a regular phone, you would have to swipe between apps.

Under the leadership of present CEO Satya Nadella, Redmond is taking calculative moves to develop its mobile strategy. Instead of going after Apple in the mainstream smartphone market, Microsoft is in no rush to grab the market share or develop a product that goes neck to neck with the iPhone. The strategy for Microsoft, as it becomes clear with the Surface Duo 2, is not to chase the market that is already saturated with the iPhone and Android smartphones from Chinese phone makers but to create a new type of “mobile device” that might become the default phone form factor in the future. It all reflects the way Microsoft has chosen the Surface team to design and develop the Surface Duo and not created another vertical within the company. The Surface lineup consists of limited but high-end products that have succeeded in the market and successfully created new form factors like the Surface Pro. It’s clear the Surface Duo range is not for everyone; it’s a niche, ultra-premium, and targets executive-level users who don’t mind spending $1500 (the top-end model of the Duo 2 costs $1800) on a dual-screen phone.

The limited availability of the Surface Duo 2 to North America, Western Europe, and Japan shows that the company is still finding the right customer base who will resonate most with a device like these. Unlike Apple which is working with telecom operators to get extra aggressive with deals and offers on the iPhone 13 series, Microsoft is taking the complete opposite direction and instead of going after focused segments that might be fit for the Surface Duo 2 for now.

Sony is another niche player that is using the same strategy to build a reputation and making sure the creator community and “pro” level customers take notice of its flagship Xperia 1 III or the Xperia Pro. The shift from the mainstream appeal and developing smartphones for creative types seem to have worked for the Japanese behemoth which recently saw its mobile division turning profitable for the first time in years.

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