Microsoft this week pulled back the curtain on the Surface Duo‘s price and availability: 128GB for $1,400 and 256GB for $1,500, both shipping on September 10. Too bad the dual-screen Android device is dead on arrival.
The price tag is tough to swallow, especially during a pandemic. After all, 2020 is seeing a resurgence in good, cheap phones. Most notably, Apple launched a $399 iPhone SE, to which Google responded with a $349 Pixel 4a. But if you are interested in a folding phone, a grand and a half is not going to be the deal breaker, especially given the starting prices of this year’s Galaxy Z Flip ($1,380), Galazy Z Flip 5G ($1,450), Motorola Razr ($1,500), and Huawei Mate Xs (€2,499). The real problem is what you get, or rather don’t get, for the price.
We knew in October that the Surface Duo was launching with last year’s Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 instead of the Snapdragon 855+ or this year’s Snapdragon 865 or Snapdragon 865+. Never mind that using old chips consistently dooms flagship launches — Microsoft seems happy to use old chips in what is clearly meant to be a flagship device:
So, with Surface Duo, we didn’t focus our energy on the places the industry is already advancing — processors and networks will get faster, and cameras will get better with or without us.
Maybe that’s OK, given that the Duo appears to be for business executives. After all, every time Microsoft has teased the device, it’s one of its executives doing the photo op. You could make the case that such a target market doesn’t care for the latest specs — executives want a device that improves their productivity, regardless of specs.
And yet, this is ultimately meant to replace your phone. It has to be better than whatever is currently in your pocket. It’s hard to imagine someone carrying around a Duo and a second smartphone (although I wouldn’t put it past execs who already carry two phones).
It’s not just processing speed and battery life that Microsoft is skipping out on by using old hardware. The Duo ships with a single camera (even Google conceded one smartphone camera was inadequate). The Duo has no 5G, NFC, or Wi-Fi 6. What’s the point of guaranteeing Android updates for three years on hardware that is outdated out of the box?
Questionable value proposition
Specification missteps aside, Microsoft has not articulated what problem the Duo is attempting to solve. If you’re going to spend at least $1,400 on a phone, especially during a pandemic-induced recession, it better offer something truly unique. Microsoft’s pitch boils down to what every other foldable device maker claims — that their latest device isn’t just another phone:
Today, as we look ahead to the next wave of mobile productivity and creativity, we see that same opportunity to create something new with Surface Duo — not to reinvent the phone, but to inspire people to rethink how they want to use the device in their pocket.
And maybe the lack of a clear value proposition is OK if you’re trying to create a new device category. The 35-minute press demo certainly feels like Microsoft wants users to figure that part out. But that itself is part of another problem.
This is the year we also saw Microsoft permanently close all its physical retail stores. Furthermore, many carrier and electronic stores are still closed, especially in the U.S. where the Duo is exclusively being sold. It’s pretty hard to try out a new category-defining device if you can’t hold it in your hands. It’s even harder to do if you can’t even buy it in your country. Even Microsoft’s Kin phones from a decade ago were slated to launch outside the U.S. before Microsoft pulled the plug.
What’s the use of a category-defining product that you can’t even try or buy?
None of these missteps on their own are enough to doom a device. Plenty of category-defining devices launched with an eye-watering price tag or unimpressive specs or in a single country. But all together during a recession? It’s not looking good.
I’m excited about dual-screen devices, maybe even more so than folding single-screen devices. But I think the jury is still out on the whole foldables category. Last year, following the unveiling of the Surface Duo and Surface Neo (now delayed till 2021), I wrote:
None of this will necessarily pan out. Dual-screen devices could flop. Two screens means more potential productivity, efficiency, and maybe even some fun games, sure. But two screens also raises questions around thickness, weight, performance, price, and battery life. After all, Microsoft has been on the dual-screen adventure before with its Courier project almost a decade ago — which it killed off because the device wasn’t up to snuff.
It’s great that this time, Microsoft feels comfortable enough to launch a dual-screen device. And yet, if Microsoft postponed the Neo, instead of pushing the Duo out early (it was originally timed for a holiday release), maybe it should have delayed Duo, too. If there’s any year where a postponement is forgivable, it’s 2020.
Microsoft could have pushed back the Duo to include the latest chips, multiple cameras, 5G, and Wi-Fi 6, and to ensure some much-needed retail presence. That way, the Duo would not have been set up for failure. And the price tag would have even been easier to swallow.
Microsoft isn’t doing itself any favors by kneecapping Duo at the starting block, which I fear may hurt its successors, too. The good news is that the company didn’t turn its Surface line into a billion-dollar business by throwing in the towel after a single generation. I await the inevitably poorly named Surface Duo 2.
ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.