Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Microsoft Announces New Surface Products, Including Dual-Screened Devices for End of Next Year

Panos Panay of Microsoft:

Today in New York we announced our broadest Surface lineup ever – with five new products coming this holiday and two new dual-screen devices, Surface Neo and Surface Duo, coming in Holiday 2020.

As far as I can tell, the updates Microsoft announced today have been well-received by those who know their products well. The Surface line has, generally, seemed very successful — I see them all the time when I’m in coffee shops or at the library.

But there were still traces of the old Microsoft during today’s announcements which became most obvious when they introduced the Surface Neo and Surface Duo — two products that, while intriguing, won’t be available until the end of next year. Why show them now?

Lauren Goode of Wired got to interview Panay and Satya Nadella at Microsoft’s headquarters last week. There isn’t a rationale in her report of why these products are being shown over a year before anyone can buy them; the closest she gets is explaining that Panay can’t talk about where the camera is going to be because it might give competitors ideas. The piece starts with this strange request:

No matter what you do, do not call the new Surface phone a phone. You can call it a Surface, a mobile product, a dual-screen device, a new kind of 2-in-1, a pathway to the all-important cloud. But Panos Panay, Microsoft’s chief product officer, doesn’t want you to call it a phone.

Never mind that the thing slips in and out of the pocket of Panay’s salt-and-pepper tweed blazer exactly the way a smartphone would. Or that one of the earliest scenes in the marketing video for the thing, with its slow, fetishized swirls of the gadget, shows a woman picking it up to her ear and saying “Hello?” the way you would with, well, you know. Or that Panay himself admits he makes what are universally known as a “phone calls” from it.

A few companies have weird stylistic conventions, but people are gonna call this phone-sized, phone-shaped product that has general phone functionality a “phone”.

That phone, by the way, runs Android, and it speaks to the company’s radical transformation since the Steve Ballmer era that this is how Satya Nadella responded when Goode asked if the company would ever make another Windows-based phone:

Later on I ask Nadella the same question, and he zooms out even further. “The operating system is no longer the most important layer for us,” he says. “What is most important for us is the app model and the experience. How people are going to write apps for Duo and Neo will have a lot more to do with each other than just writing a Windows app or an Android app, because it’s going to be about the Microsoft graph.”

Could you imagine a previous Microsoft CEO saying that they do not consider the operating system nearly as important as the app ecosystem?

Regardless of how bizarre it is that these devices were introduced a year out, I’m fascinated by the Surface Neo. I’ve always liked the Microsoft Courier, especially some of its weirder UI ideas that leaned heavily on maximizing its book-like form. I’m not sure how any of this stuff will translate into real life — the marketing video doesn’t give a good impression and neither do the hands-on videos I’ve seen — but it’s interesting, and I dig that.