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Microsoft’s New Pocket PC

By Michael Castelluccio
October 1, 2020
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Last year at this time, Microsoft hosted an event that featured several new models of its successful Surface computer line. Included were two folding designs with dual screens. Panos Panay, Microsoft’s chief product officer, called them the Surface Duo and Surface Neo. At the time, both still hovered in a look-but-don’t-touch stage of development.

 

Now, a year later, the smaller of the two computers, the Duo, is finally available to order (see p. 55), and Panay has opened up on the device’s long genesis. In an interview with The Verge website, Panay said he “has been thinking about a pocketable Surface device for years,” and, when the research on an 8″ Windows tablet called the Surface Mini was ended in 2014, the concept survived in the Duo, which took the Surface Mini’s place in the development line.

 

A FRESH START

 

Panay said he walked around for months with a mock-up of the device fashioned out of two pieces of hinged metal in his pocket. This is reminiscent of Jeff Hawkins in 1996 carrying a block of wood in his pocket that he would periodically remove and look at and wonder what it would be great to be able to do on something digital that size. Hawkins’s wooden talisman eventually materialized as the first PalmPilot PDA, the very popular first pocket computer.

 

For Panay, it took six years and a major new corporate direction for Microsoft before his mock-up emerged as the Duo, a two-screen phone and pocket PC. Panay explained that the original Mini failed due to an “app deficit.” There wasn’t a library of Windows apps, and, without a catalog and lineup of developers ready to add to it, the Mini reached a dead end.

 

The new Duo, however, does have a realistic chance of success because, for the first time in the company’s history, Microsoft was ready to offer a device that doesn’t run on its own Windows operating system. The Duo is a Microsoft computer designed to run on the Android 10 operating ­system. This decision was based on the reality that Android is found on 2.5 billion devices worldwide, and the systems apps ecosystem is second to none. The Google Play store offered ap­proximately 2.56 million apps in the first quarter of 2020. Even Apple’s App Store was running a second-best at almost 1.85 million for the same period. Microsoft wasn’t even on the same playing field.

 

NOT JUST SOFTWARE

 

For most of its 45-year history, Microsoft has been a software company. With the chip manufacturer, Intel, it created the Wintel duopoly, first with the MS-DOS operating system and then with Windows. The company added Microsoft Office as a secondary cash cow, and as recently as 2016 it was the world’s largest software maker by revenue.

 

Today, Microsoft is becoming a services company with strong offerings in the cloud. But hardware has also occupied the company in more recent years with successes like the Surface Pro tablet and the Xbox, along with notable failures like the Windows Phone.

 

THE WINDOWS PHONES

 

The Surface Duo isn’t Microsoft’s first attempt at a smartphone. The first Microsoft phones were what one commentator characterized as “glorious failures.” After trying for the better part of a decade, the final eulogy was written in October 2017 when Microsoft announced it was ending any further development for the Windows Phone operating system. Launched in 2010, the Windows Phone OS was hailed at first as a whole reimagining of the smartphone. The system featured tiles active with live content while the 3-year-old iPhone had static icons on its interface. Many other live design elements were only on the Windows OS, and even the on-screen keyboard was seen as better than most. Vlad Savov of The Verge wrote, “In some of the most important and pervasive ways, Windows Phone was the iPhone’s equal.”

 

And manufacturers like Nokia, with its Lumia 800, and HTC with the Windows Phone 8X provided exemplary hardware for the operating system. In the first five years, the Windows Phone should have provided serious competition for the iPhone and Android phones. But it didn’t because people didn’t want to buy a smartphone that didn’t have a universe of application offerings. The numbers posted by Gartner in 2015 showed Microsoft owned a meager 2.5% of the market while iOS and Android held a 96.8% smartphone share.

 

When Panay was asked why the Duo has Android on board, he answered with one word: “apps.” And he expressed enthusiasm for this new partnership. About the Microsoft business software on the Duo, he explained, “We didn’t create them just for Duo, we created them in the Android code base. We really do want Android to continue to adopt these pieces and kind of light up the best Microsoft experiences.”

 

Photo above courtesy of Microsoft

 

Michael Castelluccio has been the Technology Editor for Strategic Finance for 26 years. His SF TechNotes blog is in its 23rd year. You can contact Mike at mcastelluccio@imanet.org.


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