Microsoft reenters 'device' space

Microsoft hasn't said what kind of connectivity features its new device will support, including 5G. (Microsoft)

Microsoft this week unveiled it’s officially reentering the mobile phone space, showing off a dual-screen Android device that is slated to launch next year.

After previously abandoning the smartphone business, Microsoft at a media event on Wednesday revealed the prototype Surface Duo device, which runs Google’s operating system and features the Google Play store. The phone currently folds via a hinged design and Microsoft unveiled it far in advance of launch to give developers an opportunity to create apps for the dual-screen design.

Avi Greengart, lead analyst at Techspotential who attended Microsoft’s New York event and has had hands-on time with the new device, called the foray an “extremely exciting move for Microsoft.” Still, he doesn’t see the company’s reentry into the smartphone space as a redo of earlier unsuccessful efforts that included buying Nokia’s mobile division for $7.6 billion.

“[The move] shows just how evolved Microsoft has become in letting its hardware division amplify the strategic goals around software and services,” Greengart said.

“This is really about Microsoft extending the graph, which is the APIs that tie together Microsoft software and cloud services,” and expanding those to a space that the company has been locked out of, he said, noting that smartphones are the largest segment of the computing market.

Now this doesn’t mean Microsoft needs to sell 20 to 30 million units and take on market leaders Samsung and Apple to be successful, Greengart added.  

“As long as [Microsoft] can sell enough hardware to justify the investment and continue pushing it’s apps and services to different form factors and different use-cases.”

The device (which Microsoft prefers not to call a "phone") is expected to available by the 2020 holiday season and cellular carriers have apparently shown enthusiasm about carrying the Duo and are working with Microsoft for future release.  

Exactly what kind of competition Microsoft will have by late next year in terms of other folding phones remains to be seen, but other device makers, including LG, are working on their own form factors and Greengart certainly doesn’t expect Microsoft to have the folding phone market to itself.  

Although Microsoft is investing heavily in form factor, he said “we will see lots of folding, flipping, and multi-screen phone-sized devices. And that’s going to be a big part of the buying decision next year.”

Cost, of course, will also be a factor and while pricing has not been announced, Greengart said Microsoft seemed to acknowledge recent blowback against super-high cost smartphones and indicated the Duo would not be priced as a statement piece device.  

One Duo feature Microsoft has touted is the ability for users to video chat on one screen, while accessing the internet on the other. Greengart is confident the Duo will be positioned as a productivity device, instead of a phone optimized for gaming, which he noted tends to be a big part of the conversation for others such as Apple.

Rather than gaming applications, he expects to see a lot of demos that show off how Microsoft’s messaging, Outlook and One Note work on the device.  

“I think Microsoft is going to definitely be pushing the Surface Duo as a mobile device for getting things done. That is absolutely core to the Surface brand.”

One thing Microsoft did not touch on in their presentation, according to Greengart, was radio connectivity and whether the device would support 5G. That stands to be an important factor as more 5G devices, including an expected 5G iPhone, come to market next year.