Samsung tried and failed, but that hasn't stopped Microsoft from giving the foldable device scene a crack.

This week the company revealed a foldable Android phone dubbed the Surface Duo.

"There's truly nothing else like this out there, it's designed to bring together the best of Microsoft with the best of Google," beamed Microsoft chief product officer Panos Panay at the launch.

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The Surface Duo has two thin 5.6-inch screens that unfold to 8.3 inches.

Unlike the Samsung Galaxy Fold, there is a visible hinge in the middle of the Surface Duo but the result is a far less fragile product. I was impressed with the 360-degree hinge so the device sits flush in its clamshell position and when folded flat. It fit surprisingly well in my jeans pocket and runs on Google's Android operating system.

Panos Panay with the Microsoft Surface Duo. Photo / Chris Tarpey
Panos Panay with the Microsoft Surface Duo. Photo / Chris Tarpey

Noticing I was being particularly cautious with the device, Panay intentionally threw it on the ground.

"You're not going to break it," he said bluntly, perhaps a subtle jab at Samsung's woes.

There's still plenty of unanswered questions about it: the camera, display, battery life, specs and price and aren't scheduled to be released until sometime in 2020. So why announce the Surface Duo now?

"We have been working on this for several years and for me it had to be done," explained Panay. "Yes, we are showing our competition where we are going, but the more people that adopt it then the better off the people are. It's good to share. I want developers to use two screens so next year you'll pick up the product and you'll love it and the apps are already there.

Microsoft Surface Duo. Photo / Supplied
Microsoft Surface Duo. Photo / Supplied

Microsoft's dual-screen Surface Duo and the larger Surface Neo tablet comes as a big surprise. Microsoft famously spent over NZD$12 billion on Nokia's smartphone business which turned out to be a disaster for the company and resulted in 7,800 job cuts. So what's different this time around and why do they have two screens?

"Think about when you sit at your desk and you have two screens. You act very differently to when you have one screen - you're about 40 per cent more productive. The mind lights up and you can be more productive with apps side by side".


Microsoft are onto something here. It's hard to be productive on a smartphone without constantly jumping between apps and losing focus. The Surface Duo allows you to watch a video on one display while working on the other. You can expand an app across both displays or copy and paste information between the two. I can see it being used like a book and flipping between the pages. It will be interesting to see how the development community come up with new ways to make use of the dual displays.

One issue I have with the Surface Duo is the name. I repeatedly got the device confused with the larger Surface Neo tablet and Surface Book laptop. One thing is for sure though, Microsoft doesn't like it to be called the "Surface Phone" or the "Microsoft Phone".

Microsoft Surface Duo. Photo / Supplied
Microsoft Surface Duo. Photo / Supplied

"It's not a phone and I didn't want to go there," urged Panay. "It's a Surface. We're pushing the boundaries for what you can do with a product this small and we know scientifically that you'll be more productive on it and that will lead to being more creative too. So calling it a phone felt wrong, it felt limiting. Look, you'll make calls, you'll download apps, but if we just called it a phone then it would take away from the product."

This does make sense. But I still wonder if part of the reasoning was to separate it from the Windows Phone mobile operating system which failed to compete with Google's Android and Apple's iOS.

The larger Surface Neo is another dual-screen device but it runs on the new Windows 10X operating system. The Neo opens up to a full-size 13" display and Panay calls it the "thinnest LCD ever created". The fold-out magnetic keyboard is particularly clever. It makes you feel a bit like James Bond when you type.

Microsoft announces dual-screen Surface Neo. Video / Microsoft

Today's event got me thinking about the industry as a whole and the recent announcements from other big players in this space. Previously, I had looked to Apple or Samsung for industry-leading technology but the last few years they have been making incremental changes with minor spec bumps and design tweaks. After years of being perceived as 'your father's technology company', it seems like Microsoft is sticking up its head again.

Will the Surface Duo become a statement piece like the iPhone was in 2007? Maybe. It's too early to get overly excited about this new form factor but if Microsoft can pull this off, it's positioning itself to become the leader in a new category of devices.

Microsoft also announced updates to its Surface product line with the new Surface Laptop 3, Surface Pro 7 and Surface Pro X, all available for pre-order today.

The Microsoft Surface family of devices. Photo / Microsoft
The Microsoft Surface family of devices. Photo / Microsoft

NZ Herald attended the Surface event as a guest of Microsoft.