Microsoft refuses to call Surface Duo a Phone – here’s why I think that is

Posted: October 30, 2019 in Microsoft


Panos Surface Duo Surfcae NEo

Photo Credit: Mark Lennihan, AP

Microsoft’s decades-old plan has been to bring a Pocket PC to market that leveraged the power of Windows and a synergy of Microsoft’s cloud, apps, services and hardware ecosystem. Previous iterations of Windows-on-Mobile (Windows Mobile, Windows Phone and Windows 10 Mobile) on traditional slate phone hardware failed to help Microsoft realize this vision. With Windows 10X and industry-leading innovative dual-screen hardware with the Surface Neo and Surface Duo, Microsoft’s Pocket PC vision may soon be within reach.  Realizing this goal may be the foundation for why Microsoft and Surface creator Panos Panay refuse to call its first pocketable Surface a phone. 

Microsoft’s disruptive Pocket PC vision

Surface 200-microsoft-surface-neo-and-surface-duo

Photo Credit: CNET

Microsoft’s original plan was to launch the Surface Duo as a disruptive pocket PC with Windows 10X. The following quote from a leaked Microsoft email last year reflects Microsoft’s Windows 10X-powered vision for what is now the Android-powered Surface Duo:

“It’s a new pocketable Surface device form factor that brings together innovative new hardware and software experiences to create a truly personal and versatile computing experience.”

That plan to shift from Windows 10X to Android changed relatively recently, well after the concept for Duo’s hardware design and the versatile dual-screen experiences it would support were envisioned.

The leaked email in June 2018 revealed that Microsoft’s original plan was indeed a Pocket PC that would disrupt mobile as it would have been powered by Windows 10X and have telephony. Another internal document reads:

“It will blur the lines between mobile and stationary computing.”

Windows 10X is Windows for mobile and PC


Photo Credit: Comics Gaming Magazine

Windows 10 is a desktop PC OS and arguably the most powerful OS in the world. Windows 10X is a “trimmed” down version of Windows designed to conform to device context and fit touch-friendly mobile experiences while maintaining much of its traditional power. Windows 10X on a pocket PC would have conceptually maintained much of the power of Windows for desktop and PC experiences, while finally being an iteration of Windows, on a mobile device, that would potentially be capable of efficiently handling mobile, touch-focused experiences.

Windows 10X is finally a version of Windows that is both desktop and mobile friendly.

It is worth noting that Google and Apple have been attempting to evolve their respective mobile OSes to accommodate more complex and PC-like experiences on mobile devices. While Microsoft has been coming from the opposite direction, trying to “trim down” Windows to maintain its strength on mobile, form-shifting, and desktop scenarios. Windows 10X seems to have significantly achieved this goal, as demonstrated on Surface Neo. But the Surface Duo runs Android.

Interestingly, the Windows OS critical to the original Pocket PC vision for the Surface Duo is not powering the device – a mobile OS, Android is. Yet, Microsoft still seems committed to the not-a-phone positioning initially intended for a device designed as a Pocket PC powered by a “trimmed down” PC OS.

Microsoft knows what a phone is

Surface Duo in HAnd

Photo Credit: Firstpost

Panos did not call the Duo a phone during his introduction of the device. And as I sat there in the room during the event, I looked up at the teleprompters guiding Panos’ (and others) speeches, and the omission of the word phone from his classification of the device was not an oversight or unintended omission. The presentation was carefully scripted, and Panos remained on script.

Microsoft knows what a phone is and what its pocketable Surface vision isn’t.

In his blog post, where he again had an opportunity to call the Duo a phone (he is a smart man and phone is undeniably in his vocabulary), the Surface Duo’s creator (and Microsoft) again chose not to call it a phone.

Photo credit: Channelnews and ZDNet

The only time he uses the word phone concerning the Duo is in his acknowledgment of what he knew others would call it despite his seemingly subtle hints that is not Microsoft’s positioning for the device.

I want to be super clear about this, you’re going to talk about this as a phone and I get that. And you’re going to talk about it as a communication device and it does both of those things incredibly well, for sure. For sure, you can text, you can write, you can do what you want. But make no mistake this product is a Surface. – Panos Panay.

So why is Microsoft not calling the Surface Duo, the pocketable Android-powered telephony-enabled, productivity/creativity device, that was initially designed to run Windows 10X – a phone?

I think it is because the Duo, though running Android, occupies the pocketable device positioning in Microsoft’s Surface family intended for a device that was designed to run Windows 10X – like Surface Neo- which if powered by Windows 10X would have been much easier to view as not-a-phone.

The pocketable Surface category  is Microsoft’s focus


Photo Credit: Microsoft

So sans Windows 10X, Microsoft I believe, is going to push the Duo as more than a phone with unique dual-screen experiences, deep integration with Microsoft’s ecosystem and first-party apps, and as a showcase device for productivity and creativity as a first-party android device. That will be Microsoft’s way, I believe, to keep this pocketable category as close to that Pocket PC vision as possible.

Microsoft not calling the Surface Duo a phone is the company focusing on the pocketable Surface category, not just the current Android-powered Duo.

I also believe that Microsoft will hope to work with Android developers that it expects to forge relationships with, over time, as they create dual-screen experiences on the Duo. I believe that the company will try to leverage those relationships and draw them further into Microsoft’s ecosystem to create dual-screen experiences for Windows 10X and the Neo. Combined with Windows 10X developers that Microsoft hopes to secure over the next year and beyond, I believe the company hopes to have sufficient apps to support a Windows 10X Surface Duo-like device in time.

This potential device would be coming to the pocketable Surface category carved out and currently occupied by the android-powered Surface Duo and would exist beside it. Thus, Microsoft’s and Panos Panay’s refusal to call the Surface Duo a phone is also likely an attempt to maintain the “integrity” of its pocketable PC category so as not to muddle the messaging if/when a potential Windows 10X device – or true Pocket PC arrives in this category.

Related Reading:

How and why Microsoft may bring a telephony-powered Windows 10X device to our pockets

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