Inside Microsoft’s Bold, Dual Screen Future

Why Microsoft's new gadgets don't feature single, flexible screens

Panos Panay with a Surface Neo
Microsoft's Panos Panay holds the new Surface Neo.

 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

The Surface Phone is a real thing. It goes by a different name and looks nothing like what you were expecting, but smartphone technology will enter Surface airspace in 2020.

Moments after introducing a startling array of Surface gadgetry that included

  • the next-gen Surface Pro X,
  • the USB-C-sporting Surface Pro 7,
  • the freshly-repairable Surface Laptop 3,
  • a 15-inch Surface laptop, and
  • Surface ear buds,

Microsoft Chief Product Officer Panos Panay nervously revealed two still-under-development dual-screen gadgets: The Surface Neo and Surface Duo.

Microsoft Surface Duo and Neo
The Surface Duo Android smartphone is at left. The Surface Neo is at right. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

The Neo is a roughly 8-inch folio that opens to reveal two identical 8-inch OLED displays, and the Duo appears to be a connected pair of roughly 5-inch displays.

Both the Surface Duo and Neo can fold open to lie flat and work as a single-connected landscape or as two separate workspaces. They work with the Surface Pen and are capable of folding all the way back until the two screenless surfaces touch each other.

What Is This?

Of the two, the Neo is the more versatile, with an attached keyboard that can fold around from the back and cover two thirds of one screen, converting it into a tiny laptop with an extra screen (almost like an oversized MacBook Pro Touch Bar) in front of the keyboard. There’s also a little groove on the other side for a magnetically-attached Surface Pen.

But the proto-Surface phone Duo is the more exciting product. With two 5.3 mm screens, a magnesium chassis, and its clearly pocketable size, this is potentially the Surface Phone (Android-based!) we’ve been waiting for. I couldn’t help but notice, though, its resemblance to 2009’s Microsoft Courier project, Microsoft’s first, albeit aborted, foray into dual-screen devices. Microsoft worked on the Courier for a time in the late 2000s before abandoning the risky product. All that was left were some leaked renders and, at the time, the last remnants of Microsoft’s innovative spirit.

Panos Panay holding the Surface Duo
Panos Panay holding the Surface Duo. Folded, it's the size of a big-screen smartphone.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

The Surface Duo is, of course, different. Microsoft brought the product to a public unveiling. Panos Panay held it and waved it around. It’s the Courier reborn! It’s the Surface Phone! It’s also none of the above.

While making it clear that the Duo could work in all the ways a smartphone works, Panay told the audience, “Make no mistake, this is a Surface Product.”

Neither the Surface Duo nor the Surface Neo will ship before 2020, but they offer a tantalizing glimpse into Microsoft’s mobile device future and put Microsoft firmly on the side of multiple screens in the two-screen vs. folding display divide.

It’s Physics

While all the other Surface products were arrayed throughout a showcase hall for us to touch and play with, Microsoft kept both the Duo and Neo behind a fabric guardrail. I took pictures and tried to imagine what they might feel like.

Later, sitting in a quiet space with Microsoft scientist and Technical Fellow Steven Bathiche, I pressed him on the decision to make two-screen instead of folding flexible display devices.

Bathiche, whom I’ve know for years, is the closest thing Microsoft has to a mad scientist. The Duo and Neo are realizations of Microsoft’s long-term vision and for him the realization of a display dream. “Even in my lab 15 years ago, I was working on these foldable and stretchable screens,” he said.

Steven Bathice
Microsoft Technical Fellow, Devices, Steven Bathiche.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

To be clear, display technology limitations meant that these were basically projection surfaces, but Bathiche’s point was clear, they wanted to have “small things that interact big.” Such convertible devices offer, Bathiche noted, an obvious benefit. “We’ve always known that if we can get something that morphs from small to big, we can have productivity on the go.”

The two devices also fill a size gap Microsoft has almost assiduously ignored. Years ago, Microsoft came insanely close to releasing a Surface Mini, only to pull it essentially days before a big reveal. Now, with the Surface Duo and Neo, Microsoft enters that 7-to-11-inch device space, but with far more flexibility than if they were delivering a pair of rigid, single-screen devices. It’s a sort of have your cake and eat it too situation with devices that are small enough to be pocketable but can open large enough to be productive.

The Folding Choice

I pulled out the Samsung Galaxy Fold I’d been carrying around for a few days, unfolded it to reveal the 7-inch flexible display, and asked Bathiche why Microsoft didn’t make the Surface Duo and Neo with single, foldable displays, as well.

Make no mistake, this is a Surface Product.

“Today, while you can fold a device like that, the thing that you cannot do yet, and I think you will experience soon, is how to protect that fragile display,” he said, “You can put hard coats on it, but [it has] nowhere near the scratch resistance of glass.”

I think the display is a little tougher than Bathiche thinks, but I got his point. My Galaxy Fold display is covered in thin plastic, not hard Gorilla Glass; Samsung did warn me not to put any real force or sharp objects on the display.

A woman holds a tablet
A Microsoft exec demonstrates the foldable Surface Neo.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

More than one person has asked my why the Fold doesn’t, like Samsung’s Galaxy Note series, have one of Samsung’s S Pens with it. The bluetooth stylus would appear a perfect companion for the unfolded 7-inch display.

“If you took a pen and applied a point load [from a pen], you would damage that device,” said Bathiche who was not talking out of turn. A screen nerd, he’s been in the display technology field for 20 years, designed the original Surface displays, and has had a hand in every single Surface device, including these new ones.

The other potential issue is what happens to the display technology when you fold a flexible screen. Bathiche asked me to imagine a stack of papers and how, when you fold them over, the paper edges do not meet neatly on one side. The inside pages stick out slightly more than the sheet on top of it and that sheet sticks out more than the sheet on top of it. That fanning out could be a problem, Bathiche contends, for the display technology stack inside folding screens.

A Surface Duo on a display stand
Microsoft Surface Duo.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

The Duo’s pair of 5.3mm OLEDs do not have to accommodate that kind of movement. They’re just two rigid, tightly connected screens.

In addition, flexible display devices can generally only flex in one direction. Bending back 360 degrees as the Duo and Neo can is impossible.

Windows Legacy

There is a more practical reason for two screens and one that Bathiche thinks aligns with Microsoft’s core Windows platform. People who use Microsoft’s popular desktop and laptop operating system love to extend their screens, keeping, for instance, their main productivity apps on the main display and their email and calendar (or something else) on the other.

“People need and love [screen] real estate,” said Bathiche, “With two separate screens you have neat containers.” Of course, this only works if the two screens can also work as a unit. During the presentation, I saw how tasks can span both screens and slide smoothly from one to the other screen, the thin space separating them theoretically disappearing in a frenzy of productivity.

The Surface Neo
Here's the Surface Neo with its keyboard in place.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Did Microsoft even consider flexible displays for the Surface Duo and Neo? Of course. “We researched the heck out of this,” said Bathiche, “We still look at it, absolutely, but right now the physics hinders that situation.”

The fundamental issue is “How do you make glass bend?” Bathiche asked, rhetorically. “[There is] no material in the world today that can bend like plastic with the scratch-resistance of glass.”

Check out my video recap of Microsoft's huge Surface event.