In the event that you’ve not been on the internet in the past month or so, you may have missed the long-awaited return of Microsoft to the phone game. After a relative failure with Windows Phone a few years back, Microsoft left the scene with their collective tail between their legs and focused in on their Surface line of products instead. While maybe not the #1 selling laptop or tablet lines, the Surface device family has grown into a top-of-the-line group of Windows hardware that delivers the clearest possible vision of what Microsoft expects out of its hardware partners.
In this vein, the Surface Duo is being released by Microsoft as a Surface device through-and-through, being marketed first and foremost as a pocket-bound computing device that happens to make phone calls and use a SIM card. While the phone reviewers out there will largely pan it as an under-powered, overpriced smartphone (it does run Android 10 after all), other takes on the Surface Duo feel more considered when they see the device for what it really is: a new take on a mobile-first piece of computing hardware. When viewed simply as another flagship Android phone, the last-gen processor (Snapdragon 855), single camera setup (yeah, there’s really just a single camera on this entire thing), lack of NFC, SD card slot and headphone jack all pile on to make the $1399 asking price feel like a huge miss.
Dig just a bit deeper, however, and you begin to see exactly what it is Microsoft has put together in this new Surface device. The focus isn’t about making the best new smartphone. Instead, it definitely feels like Microsoft is aiming towards something a bit bigger, here, leveraging the Duo’s dual screens in a cohesive way we’ve not ever seen before in a mobile device. Sure, there have been quite a few Android phones that have tried the dual screen approach, but none of them have the developer chops of Microsoft and none of them have considered the use cases that Microsoft already seems to have done with this device. It’s hard to communicate how cool the Duo is to use when things align and it delivers on its own potential, but it’s enough to say that when the Duo is doing its thing, it is an absolute joy to manuever.
The Surface Duo isn’t the fastest Android phone and it doesn’t have the best screen in any device out there. It won’t do some of the things we’ve come to expect from our high-priced phones like tap-to-pay or multi-camera arrays. Instead, the Surface Duo looks does quite a few productivity things no other pocket-bound device can do right now, delivers it all in a unique form factor, and just so happens to also make phone calls and receive texts. Perhaps it just becomes easier if we stop calling it a phone and stop comparing it to them. For me, the moment I do so, some very interesting thoughts begin to emerge around this compelling, new form factor.
Through some early bugs, Microsoft-first software choices and a few connectivity hiccups, I used the Surface Duo for a few days as my main phone. I’m not really a phone reviewer and don’t pretend to be, but I can tell you the few days I spent with this ‘phone’ have only made me more convinced that something like this hardware could be the way we finally end up seeing Chrome OS on a pocketable device that can also take and make some phone calls. Let me explain.
Chrome OS on dual screens and in your pocket
Despite this post opening about the Surface Duo, this ‘phone’ is really just an experiment to me that seeks to help us all decide if dual screens on small devices are just as helpful as it is on larger ones. Forgetting the notion of Android smartphones for a minute and letting yourself consider something like this with Chrome OS on it instead instantly becomes a more-realistic path to a Chrome OS phone than any I’ve come across before.
Think about it: a Chrome OS phone is likely never in the cards from a more-standard approach. Too much work would need to be done to make Chrome OS work on a narrow, tall, small-screen device and it just wouldn’t make a ton of sense outside of giving user the ability to carry around a legit desktop interface in their pockets.
Taking the Surface Duo path solves a bit of what has made Chrome OS difficult to imagine on a phone, though. Microsoft is definitely taking the approach that the Duo is a computing device with two screens that happens to take phone calls. They don’t refer to it as a phone and nothing in their initial pitch would allude to that idea. Instead, this is a different take on a pocket-bound computer that also can get a phone call when need be and keep you connected to your text-first communications.
Take this mentality, then, and just subsititue in Google for Microsoft and Chrome OS for Android. Chrome OS handles multiple displays with ease already. Chrome OS has a very nice, touch-based navigation system that would work great on a device like the Duo. And, when pitched as a dual-screen tablet that can make phone calls, it becomes way easier to imagine something like this with Chrome OS on it.
You can even take the phone/text part out of the equation and there would still be a very viable market for a smaller, pocketable, dual-screen device that ran Chrome OS instead of Android. With USI pen support, it could be the note taking, meeting-centric device you have with you on the go that docks into a workstation for bigger tasks when you get settled. The more I think about it, the more I want something just like that! Sure, there would have to be minor software tweaks here and there, but Chrome OS’ tablet mode is nearly ready to do most things the Surface Duo can do, but with far more desktop usability.
It’s probably a pipe dream, but the fact that Google is clearly on board with foldable and dual screen devices means someone in Mountainview has likely at least thought about putting Chrome OS on something like the Duo. And, if they do, I think this would be the far-superior path to a ‘Chrome OS Phone’ versus anything else that’s ever been considered. Looking at the Lenovo Chromebook Duet, people really love the duality of a smaller-screened, tablet-first Chrome OS experience with the ability to jump into a desktop mode with a mouse and keyboard when needed. The idea behind a Surface Duo running Chrome OS wouldn’t be far from that existing reality, and it would be far more portable, far more powerful, and – in my eyes, at least – far more awesome.