I argued a few weeks ago that Microsoft shouldn’t make an Android phone. Specifically, I said it was a fantasy, an alluring one. Things have changed since then, drastically so. Microsoft has announced its first Android phone, the Surface Duo. This Surface is a folding phone, not one that’s in the same line as Samsung’s Fold or Hauwei’s Mate X, but in a distinct Microsofttean way. It’ll bring the best of Microsoft’s services on Android to Android phone users, and it’ll do it with a hardware flourish that focuses on productivity. That’s all well and good. Now, I have to argue that if Microsoft is dipping its toes into Android, it should do so properly — it should make an actual Android phone as well.
An Android-powered Surface Phone would look something like a OnePlus or Samsung Galaxy S10, albeit with Microsoft’s Surface stylings. It would have hardware worthy of 2019/2020, perhaps with a custom SoC like the Surface Pro X’s SQ1. Microsoft could ship the same skin of Android it does on the Surface Duo, albeit optimised for a singular device. Android skins don’t have the same stigma in 2019 anymore, and the firm could commit to regular security updates. After all, a Microsoft phone would also be sold on being a secure product. It would not do to fall behind on that promise. The firm would also equip it with the latest cameras because while photography is important for people who buy smartphones, it is triply so for the influencers who review and rate them. Plus, there’s nothing to be gained from falling behind Apple’s iPhone’s and Samsung’s Galaxies. Even if it were aimed at a business context, a good camera is becoming essential with the rise of OCR and mobile scanning.
But enough thinking about how a Surface Phone would work, let’s talk about why it should even exist. Once Microsoft committed to building its own version of Android as well as a phone, 75% of the argument for not building an Android phone was blown away. It’s already bound to deliver Android updates and create its own Android skin. It’s already going to be participating in the spec wars, and foldables are being built by everyone and their grandma. If you’re already in for the pound, the penny makes no difference either way (to repurpose a phrase). It may seem weird to ask for Microsoft to make a less ambitious device than what it’s putting out, but it makes perfect sense for the typically conservative Microsoft.
Consider, the Surface Laptop. Despite having a Surface Pro and Surface Book lines, Microsoft still thought a traditional clamshell experience was still valuable. The firm said it wanted to “refresh the classic laptop form factor” that customers have been asking for. Like with the Surface Duo, Microsoft faces a similar challenge. It wants users to have access to an old experience while pushing a new form-factor as well. By making a Surface Phone side by side, it could pre-empt the ‘Surface Laptop question’. Sure, it could produce a bit of the future, and what a cool, spectacular, amazing future it could be. But not all users are on board with that future. Given the track record of foldables, some may be suspicious of it. Those users are the ones that are buying Microsoft’s Surface Laptops, and they won’t want a Surface Duo to go with it. The Surface Phone need not be produced in large quantities or heading for iPhone numbers, it could be something like the HP Elite X3. That was built with the knowledge that it would sell a limited number of devices. The goal here isn’t to create a large number of devices, it’s to complete a portfolio that offers something for everyone.
Last, but probably not least is the factor I call the tech-demo factor. Tech companies are selling you the future every day of the week. It’s exciting to watch their demos and write about it, but not all these demos are well baked. The Google Pixel 4’s Motion Sense looked amazing in demos and was underwhelming in the very real present, Microsoft Surface Pro X hasn’t yet delivered on its promise and the Xbox One was quickly forced back into the past after its initial roadmap was strongly rejected by its audience. Microsoft’s Surface Duo is something like that. Everything interesting about it is in the future. The hardware? In the future. App support for its unique form factor? In the future. Use cases for this form factor? We’ll find out in the future.
A company rarely gets a showcase of new technology right on its first attempt ad Microsoft is no exemption, just look to the Surface Pro X. A Surface Phone could help tide users over and familiarise them with Microsoft’s Android until Duo gets fully baked. Don’t get me wrong, Duo is a good future-looking phone, but some people would rather a stable present.