My musings here come with the benefit of hindsight, of course, and after reading Zac Bowden's latest editorial over on WindowsCentral. Now, Zac (and Daniel Rubino) are - quite literally - the world's biggest fans of the Surface Duo, owning one from launch (last Autumn) and doggedly continuing to use the device, despite the appalling camera, the lack of NFC for tap to pay, the terrible mono speaker, etc. So when Zac pens an editorial including:
The Surface Duo has been on the market for almost five months now, and as a customer since day one, I've been consistently disappointed at the pace at which software has been moving. The product launched in an incredibly buggy state, and while the OS has improved since day one, things still aren't where they should be for a shipping product...
...The product launched with an overwhelming number of bugs and issues that I assumed Microsoft would drop multiple OS updates each month with fixes. But it's barely managed to hit one a month, a pace far too slow for a product with a notoriously poor launch state. Because of the slow progress, Surface Duo is still an unstable device today in February 2021. Microsoft is not being aggressive enough when it comes to pushing out updates.
I am still hitting issues with the device not wanting to wake the screens from sleep, and I continue to suffer from touch lag which is most obvious when typing fast on SwiftKey. Touch events seem to freeze up and then initiate all at once. It was an issue at launch, and it still persists today...
...It also doesn't help that when it comes to Windows integration via Your Phone, the Surface Duo is lacking in features compared to Samsung devices with exclusive access to the new "Apps" feature. You'd think that at the very least, Microsoft customers spending $1,400 on a Surface Duo would get access to the same features that Samsung customers are getting access to on Windows.
If Microsoft is serious about Surface Duo, it needs to get these sorts of things right, because it will affect people's thoughts and opinions on any second- or third-generation hardware if it doesn't. Even if they upgrade the camera, the slow updates and poor communication doesn't make recommending successors easier.
Do go read the whole piece, since it's very honest in its frustration. And Zac's complaints don't even mention the possible showstoppers I mentioned in the introduction, namely imaging, NFC and speaker. Or (ahem) the price. I've seen 1500 Euros leaked for a European launch this month. Which is cloud cuckoo land. Now, Microsoft continually refers to its Surface Duo as a 'first generation product', implying that it knows full well it hasn't ticked all the boxes it needed to and that a better successor would be along shortly.
But of course that does absolutely nothing to reassure someone thinking of buying a Duo now. And Zac's complaints about continued bugs, missed monthly security updates, lack of roadmap, and poor communication from the Surface Duo team, absolutely seal the deal.
Could a Windows-powered Surface Duo (/Project Andromeda) have done worse? I really don't think so.
In theory, Surface Duo gains all the benefits of being an Android smartphone in that applications like Snapchat and TikTok are available and work, even if not particularly optimised. Whereas these would be missing in action on a Windows 10 Mobile or even Windows 10X device. But come on, is there much crossover between trendy consumer social media and a dual-screen productivity vision? I don't think so. In which case the Duo could very well run Windows, fitting in better with Microsoft's other Surface devices in terms of strategy and OS. Plus there would have been the not inconsiderable weight of Windows 10 Mobile users upgrading from the likes of the Lumia 950 range.
Windows 10 Mobile was already 'Windows 10 on ARM', remember. Which is why enthusiasts have been able to so readily hack Windows 10X and WoA variants onto the venerable Lumia 950 XL. The OS and hardware platforms were already halfway 'there'.
Of course, there's the challenge of adapting any OS to run equally well on two displays - Windows 10 Mobile was resolutely (at the time) single screen, but it did have all the Continuum technology and all UWP applications were able to resize their interfaces to whichever display size they found themselves running on. So I don't think adapting Windows 10 Mobile to the Duo form factor was an insurmountable problem - heck, even Microsoft had this as their plan for several years internally.
Windows 10X was announced in 2019 for dual screen devices, in the form of the Surface Neo, but this has kept being pushed back and we've yet to see this in action. But the OS itself (effectively Windows 10 reimagined for multiple chip platforms without any of the legacy Win32 code) was designed for form factors like the Duo/Neo from day one, so clearly there's no great problem there.
Yet Microsoft chose to turn to Android, desiring the long tail of almost infinite applications in the Play Store over a more focussed Microsoft/Windows-centric approach and damn the app selection. I've thought all along that Microsoft could have made the latter work. A Windows-powered Surface Duo would certainly have stood out more in a sea of thousands of Android smartphones, all with dramatically better value propositions than the Duo.
And ironically, the very aspects which Zac complains about - the lack of security updates and the underwhelming desktop extension system, would both have been addressed within Windows by definition. In terms of security and kernel updates, even Lumias were receiving these right up until the end of support with almost zero effort by Microsoft. And Continuum would have done an even better job at extending operation to a nearby desktop or monitor than the slightly janky Your Phone system, I contend.
It's all water under the bridge now though - and way too late to do anything about it. Somewhere in a Microsoft building there are old Andromeda prototypes running a variant of Windows 10 Mobile and I'd love to see them... one day. In the meantime we have the underwhelming disappointment that is Surface Duo. And given Microsoft's pricing insanities, I don't hold out much hope that Surface Duo 2 will be any more accessible or affordable.
What might have been, eh?