In a waning smartphone sector, and with rivals beating it at the innovation game, can the Surface Duo find a place in the international market?
Microsoft’s new venture into smartphone territory will likely prove quite testing, not least because of the awkward timing it had for this reveal (and the eventual release of Q4 2020).
Last week, Microsoft announced the latest iteration of its famous Surface line. Traditionally a line of tablet-PC hybrid devices, this Surface update however brought a new player onto the field: the Microsoft Surface Duo.
The foldable phone wars heat up
The Surface Duo is a ‘phone’ that brings together the best of both worlds between tablets and phones. Sure, phablets have done this before, but the Surface Duo is different. It combines the display size of a tablet with the portability and convenience of a smartphone. Yet, why is it that we can’t help but feel we’ve heard this before?
That’s right. That’s because two phones revealed at the start of the year do all of the above, with an added novelty to boot.
We’re talking about the Samsung Galaxy Fold and the Huawei Mate X, two new foldable phones by more well-established smartphone manufacturers. Revealed earlier this year, they feature foldable screens with no bezels to cover their centre hinge. These devices feature truly bendable screens, a true novelty to the market. Sure, some have tried their hand at it before, but never at the scale or with the capital available to these two huge manufacturers.
Now, this proves problematic for Microsoft for a few reasons, the most glaring of which is the screen tech. While Samsung and Huawei are busy championing and marketing new tech that is turning heads, Microsoft has essentially taken flip phones and bumped their size up.
Another issue to consider is that the Fold and the Mate X are releasing this year – i.e. the tech of the future is already here. Microsoft’s relatively ‘standard’ device, on the other hand, is aiming for a holiday 2020 release, almost an entire year after consumers come to terms with foldable screens and they become standard. When consumers have had their hands on foldable screens for more than a year, how will Microsoft be able to entice them to cash in for a more unoriginal product?
However, Microsoft could find two saving graces with this competition: the unwieldiness of the tech, and price.
A loss for foldable screens is a win for the Surface Duo
The Samsung Galaxy Fold was slated for a mid-2019 release, but journalists conducting their reviews of the device found that a lack of clear guidance led them to damaging their own phones. This forced Samsung to go back to the drawing board, which created unease in the international market regarding the tech. From breaking hinges, to unwieldy handling, to scratched screens, the room for error is significant, and the Surface Duo could find success in its rival’s failure. Tried and test tech often beats out the new but bizarre, and Microsoft could have itself a win here. Think back to how 3D TVs were pushed so aggressively onto the market at the start of the decade, and how good-ole 2D TV proved to be the masses’ favorite. New isn’t always right, or popular.
The second potential winning situation for Microsoft could be negative feedback to the unreasonably high price of foldable screen smartphones. Sure, the price of novelty is often high, but $1,980 (Samsung Galaxy Fold) and $2,600 (Huawei Mate X) high? Price point was a major point of discontent among customers and the media. Should sales of these foldable phones struggle, consumers could revert to the second most innovative phablet tech on the market, and opt for something like the Surface Duo.
How can you encourage people to buy a new phone where no one is buying?
Regardless of foldable screen technology, the Surface Duo faces major challenges pertaining to the smartphone market itself.
According to market research firm Gartner, worldwide sales of smartphones to end users will total 1.5 billion units in 2019, a 2.5% decline year over year. H2 2019 is expected to witness the continued months-long decline in smartphone sales internationally. With little innovation pushing users to hold on to their devices for longer, can Microsoft sufficiently entice them with their new smartphone? Possibly. The thing is, Microsoft doesn’t classify the Duo as a smartphone.
"Make no mistake," Panos Panay, Microsoft's chief product officer, said. "This is a Surface device."
Panay talked about this extendedly on The Vergecast podcast: “I feel like ‘phone’ is such a limiting word. And then you say, ‘well, smartphone.’ I don’t even know what that means. And then phablet. I’m not sure what that is. But everything has an identifying factor to it. Even when we started Surface, people are like, ‘So it’s a tablet.’ I’m like, ‘It’s not a tablet. It’s just not a tablet. It’s a Surface.’ I don’t know what to say.”
For all their debates about the semantics of terminology, Microsoft does seem to be willing to make a compromise. After its failed attempts with popularizing their Windows OS for their first-party devices, Microsoft has now opted for the Android OS with the Surface Duo. In his interview with The Vergecast, Panay reveals that his company has identified that the apps people want are on Android (on Apple too by extension, but he doesn’t mention that).
“It’s about meeting our customers where they are, where they’re going to be.”
Microsoft could have a major success on their hands here, especially that they’re beginning to learn and change. Here’s hoping they aren’t holding out too long with their late 2020 release.