Microsoft’s Surface Duo – Not a product review

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Microsoft’s Surface Duo – Not a product review

Skip ahead to: Down the rabbit hole

In the last decade, Microsoft has introduced and subsequently scaled back a number of iterations of their Windows operating mobile phone with little success in the consumer market. Most recently they have announced the release of the Surface Duo, an Android-powered mobile device, as part of the Surface series. The phone is a hinged, foldable device with two distinct screens for the user to interface with – each 5.6 inches large. Microsoft primarily focuses on the value of the dual-screen as the ability to easily multitask and expand the field of vision within an application. Microsoft has long held that users multi-task differently when they can organize their workspace across two screens. As with all its previous models, Microsoft once again leans into the capacity of the phone to function as a productive space. The question is whether the Surface Duo and its foldable function will succeed where its predecessors have failed to provide Microsoft with meaningful reach into the consumer mobile market. 

There are two elements that primarily define our smartphone experience:

  • Function: Smartphones introduced mobile access to the internet and provided a portal for the browser-like experience on the mobile. This made the transition from the prior models of phones to the smartphone an easy leap – access to the internet enhanced connectivity, the core function of mobile phones. 
  • Form: The form of smartphones followed the dictates of its functionality, that of a more compact portal for the browser-like experience. This meant while the screen had to be maximized (introducing touchscreens, removing bezels etc.), the phone remained compact enough to be portable. 

Since the introduction of the smartphone, phone manufacturers like Apple and Samsung have been competing on improving the form and function to provide users with a better experience and capture market share. Form side developments have largely been limited to incremental changes like the removal of bezels for larger screen size or slimmer designs as a result of battery innovations. The Microsoft Surface Duo and Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold introduce a double, merge-able screen, perhaps the most dramatic shift of form (within one iteration) over the last decade. 

There is a way to analyse this deviation in form, the foldable aspect, in a model comparing the motivation for consumers to adopt such a design and the convenience afforded to consumers by such a design. 

In this context:

  • Motivation can be defined as the consumer’s drive to make a purchase decision based on a specific form/function feature of the mobile 
  • Convenience can be defined as the enhancement of the ubiquitous mobile experience, where the product taps into the already ingrained consumer habits in both function and form

When design is motivation driven, it is better able to target smaller, more niche groups who desire a certain form or function feature. On the other hand, convenience driven design is able to effectively cater to the masses who share a mutual desire for a convenient, ubiquitous experience. Microsoft’s Surface Duo appears more motivation driven in design – the motivation here being productivity and functional two screen use.

The Surface Duo is a hinged, full rotation device that can be dual-screen or single screen use, depending on the user’s preference. The hurdle, however, is much like the flip phones of the past, the device needs to be “opened” in order to be accessed – with no front-facing screen for interfacing. Despite the trivial nature of an additional opening action, this step represents a greater inconvenience in the flow of the user’s experience. This is especially true when compared to the forms and functions of today, wherein the screen is immediately available and always accessible (e.g. simply lifting the phone towards yourself activates the screen). This is not to mention that the dual screens are in fact distinct screens, separated by a break line down the center – this caters more to a dual-screen experience rather than the single screen experience we are used to. 

Comparatively, the latest Samsung foldable device – the Galaxy Z Fold 2 – maintains a single-screen experience. This applies both to its front-facing interface, as well as its fold out, seamless screen (no break line). Where the optimal form of current mobile devices is a maximised screen size that does not compromise compact portability, the Galaxy Z Fold 2’s smaller front screen and larger merged screens do not compromise the experience available in the current models. In fact, the fold out single screen enhances certain functions that might have comparatively been compromised when moving from larger devices to mobile, such as video playback or gaming. Ideally, Samsung has attempted to maintain the convenience of single screen models (the front-facing screen), with the fold out further enhancing certain functionalities. 

The ‘form’ of the Surface Duo fold out screen experience – as a comparison to its contemporaries. Image not to scale.

So then why is Microsoft deviating from the ubiquitous form of current devices to distinct dual-screen experience? This is because Microsoft is driven by the theme of its Surface series, one that is focused on productivity and effective workspaces. Where Samsung has created an iteration of its mobile phone products, preserving the experience, simply with a larger screen, Microsoft has adapted its tablet model into a mobile phone. This is where a distinction forms in the ability of Samsung and Microsoft to service convenience, Microsoft aligning more heavily with motivation as mentioned earlier.  

In previous iterations of Microsoft’s mobile products, the point of differentiation was the Windows Mobile OS. Microsoft deployed its native operating system rather than leaning into the open source Android OS that was more accessible, familiar and convenient (Play Store) to mass consumers at the time. Surface Duo, while having switched to the Android OS, has been deliberately designed for productive functionality – dual screens being the derivative form. Here Microsoft deviates from what is the ubiquitous and most accessible form for a more general consumer base, likely leading the Surface Duo along a similar trajectory to its previous iterations – capturing a niche rather than converting the masses. 

While the introduction of the foldable phone screen has had a rocky start with several models dismissed as being gimmicky or irrelevant to the mobile experience, it appears that the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 may find a degree of adoption. It may not be too long before the fold-out larger screen format becomes the ubiquitous mobile experience. It then becomes likely that the ‘form’ of the larger screen could usher in an evolution of the ‘function’ of mobile phones – adapting to productivity/workspace use cases with greater ease. At that point, Microsoft’s productivity focused mobile might find success with a mass consumer base more easily. 

Down the Rabbit Hole

1. Our addiction to our mobile phones dictates ‘form’

“If you’ve ever misplaced your phone, you may have experienced a mild state of panic until it’s been found. About 73% of people claim to experience this unique flavor of anxiety, which makes sense when you consider that adults in the US spend an average of 2-4 hours per day tapping, typing, and swiping on their devices—that adds up to over 2,600 daily touches. …

…While there is nothing inherently addictive about smartphones themselves, the true drivers of our attachments to these devices are the hyper-social environments they provide. Thanks to the likes of Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and others, smartphones allow us to carry immense social environments in our pockets through every waking moment of our lives. “

Mobile phones are in a way, a method of chasing dopamine triggers if we look at what the most widely used applications are throughout the world, social media and their notifications. 

“How do social media apps take advantage of this dopamine-driven learning strategy? Similar to slot machines, many apps implement a reward pattern optimized to keep you engaged as much as possible.”

If we simplify the use of the mobile phone for the vast majority, we can simplify the function of the phone as dopamine triggers. The form then follows the function, a direct and accessible screen that is immediately available to us and a blinking light indicating awaiting notifications. In this sense, the Microsoft Surface Duo which leans into productivity for its design, neglects to address dopamine triggers as a core use case. To a user, the requirement to open the device which lacks a front-facing screen, is moments of delay to achieve a necessary task. Further, a foldable device isn’t as convenient as a flip phone, the action of a flip being far smoother a transition than having to put some level of care into the opening of the Surface Duo. Then, adding an inconvenience, whilst seconds long, would appear unbearable in comparison to alternatives available.

Source: Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time – Trevor Haynes 

2. Consumer behaviour in a world of limitless online and offline options

A Think Google study assessed consumer behaviour and decisions in a world enabled by smartphones to better understand how consumers make choices both online and offline.

“By examining all of these needs, we learned how consumers choose – both online and offline – to navigate their I-want-to-know, I-want-to-go, I-want-to-do and I-want-to-buy moments.”

The study discovered three primary consumer behaviours across the spectrum of “I-want” needs and these results are strongly indicative of the holistic transformation in how consumer choices are made. As consumers navigate the world along the “I want” spectrum, it is inevitable that the smartphone, as the closest and most available portal to information, also becomes the primary consumer gateway. The smartphone is now a ubiquitous extension of consumer intent and the world is undeniably “mobile-first” 

  • “In moments of need, people turn to their phones and search

When a question or need arises, our phones are far and away our most trusted resource, with 96% of people using a smartphone to get things done [search].”

  • “Mobile helps people make decisions when they’re ready to buy

People rely on their phones to help make the best decisions at the moment of purchase. In fact, 70% of smartphone owners who bought something in a shop first turned to their devices for information relevant to that purchase.”

  • “Mobile search is used for more than just immediate needs

While search has long been useful to help with quick tasks like looking up a dinner recipe, it’s also widely used to make progress on long-term projects. In fact, 68% of people used search to help with things they want to address at some point in the future, the highest of any other online or offline source. And those searches for future needs largely happen on mobile with 97% of people searching on a mobile phone to do so.”

Source: How Mobile Has Changed How People Get Things Done: New Consumer Behaviour Data – Think with Google

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