Microsoft Previews Folding Phone, Refreshes Surface Portfolio

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But software giant faces big hurdle in convincing both consumers and developer community to back its idea

Microsoft has unveiled a refreshed Surface portfolio that includes the Surface Pro X, a redesigned thin two-in-one Windows 10 PC running on ARM processors, as well as the Surface Pro 7 and Surface Laptop 3.

The launch event in New York on Wednesday also saw the preview of a folding phone device called the Surface Duo, and a dual-screen tablet called the Surface Neo.

Both these devices have a hinge in the middle for a mechanical fold, rather than utilising a bendable screen like the Samsung Galaxy Fold does.

Microsoft product reveal, Wednesday, October 2, 2019 in New York. (Stuart Ramson/AP Images for Microsoft)

Surface Pro X

Starting off with the Surface Pro X, which is a redesigned thin two-in-one Windows 10 PC, which is aiming to be a tablet-laptop hybrid. It runs on custom ARM chips rather than traditional Intel CPUs.

This device only weights 762 grams, and it comes with the usual detachable Type Cover keyboard from Microsoft’s existing line. It also features a new Surface Slim Pen stylus that fits between keyboard and tablet for charging and storage.

It also offers 4G connectivity, and battery life is said to be far in excess of traditional Intel-powered computers.

The Surface Pro X will start at £999 in the UK, and $999 in the US. Shipment is expected from early November.

Surface Earbuds

Microsoft also updated its Surface Pro 7 (a Windows tablet) and Surface Laptop 3 (laptop), that utilise Intel’s 10th generation Core chips.

The Surface Pro 7 comes with USB-C connectivity and fast-charging technology, which means the battery can reach 80 percent in under an hour.

The cost of the Surface Pro 7 will be £799 in the UK, $749 in the US, and will ship on 22 October.

Microsoft also updated its laptop range a refreshed 13.5in (costing £999 or $999 in the US) and a brand new 15in Surface Laptop 3 (costing £1,199 or $1,199).

But the more noteworthy element was Microsoft joining other manufacturers and launching its new Surface Earbuds into the hugely competitive wireless earbuds market later this year.

These Bluetooth earbuds are claimed to have up to 24-hour battery life with a charging case, and come with noise cancelling tech and direct Spotify integration. The Surface Earbuds will cost $249 later this year in the US.

Folding Phone

But perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the entire event in New York was when Microsoft previewed two products it hopes to have ready for Christmas 2020.

The Surface Duo is a two-screen folding phone, running Android, and features two 5.6in screens joined together with a hinge that folds a full 360 degrees. Essentially, the phone opens up like a book, but can then fold all the way round.

Microsoft pitched the Surface Duo as having the benefits of a phone, but also a computer on which you can do more because it has two screens.

However, with folding devices such as Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, which have one continuous flexible screen that opens like a book instead of two screens bolted together, the Duo may be out of date before it ships.

Microsoft is said to be working with long-time bitter rival Google, to deliver Google apps on the device.

The second folding device previewed is the Surface Neo, which is more tablet sized. It also offers dual screens, with a hinge in the middle, but will run a new version of Microsoft’s operating system called Windows 10X.

It will come offer a detachable keyboard and can be opened like a book, used as two screens or one, used like a laptop with a virtual trackpad on one screen, or folded all the way over. It also supports the Surface Thin Pen.

Doomed experiment?

Microsoft’s big problem however will be trying to convince the consumer market, already burnt by Redmond’s abandoning of Windows Phone and numerous other failed hardware initiatives.

It will also have to contend with a hugely sceptical developer community that this hardware venture has a future under the leadership of CEO Satya Nadella.

But some analysts were prepared to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt.

“Attention will fixate on Microsoft’s use of Android and its return to the smartphone market but this misses the bigger picture,” said Geoff Blaber, VP research at CCS Insight. “Microsoft’s focus on Azure, its embrace of open-source and emphasis on delivering Microsoft services across multiple devices and platforms is the basis of an ambitious expansion of Surface hardware.”

“This is a bold expansion of the Surface portfolio designed to show Windows manufacturers the ‘art of the possible’ in new categories and ensure Microsoft is controlling its own destiny with Surface hardware,” Blaber added.

“”With Surface Neo and Duo, Microsoft is taking a brave step into a very new category,” he said. “Whilst Microsoft will avoid some of the issues that characterize flexible displays, the dual-screen approach is similarly new and will require developer support to fully realize the vision and take the concept beyond a commercial experiment.”

“The launch of Surface Duo will inevitably draw comparison with its doomed Windows Phone investments,” said Blabber. “Duo is not without risk but Microsoft isn’t trying to repeat history and reinvent the wheel. It’s using an established platform to deliver a new category that is optimized for a Microsoft experience.”

“Surface Duo is a bold new category of device and will take time to build developer and carrier support,” he added. “This is the start of a journey for Microsoft and expectations should be set accordingly.”

Another analyst picked up on Microsoft’s attempt to address the mass market, once again.

“With its Surface launch event today, Microsoft is making a play for the mass market of devices,” said J.P. Gownder, VP and principal analyst at Forrester. “The Surface Neo (a dual-screen Windows device) and the Surface Duo (a dual-screen Android smartphone) will get the most press, although they won’t be released for over a year because of developers.”

“Gaining software developer support for these new form factors will require a great deal of effort and the success of these new devices will fully depend on the availability of software to light up experiences that make the form factors more than just pretty premium hardware,” said Gownder. “The pay-off could be big if the user experience and developer ecosystem come together – we will need to wait and see.”

“The Surface Earbuds – integrated with Office – make a play for the growing Apple Airbud and Samsung Galaxy Buds market,” said Gownder. “But a great deal of the success here will also depend on intelligent assistants – and Cortana hasn’t become mass market.

“Missing from the event is a focus on the high-end creator. The Surface Studio 2 and Surface Book 2 will remain the latest versions of those devices for now,” he concluded. “But the play here is a much bigger one, showing Microsoft’s ambition for the Surface division: it’s no longer a demonstration project, but a two-billion-dollar business they aim to grow far bigger with the products shown today.”

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