August 12, 2020

Microsoft Surface Duo—There and Back Again

Image credit: Microsoft Store

In 2005 I was a teaching assistant for CS 130 Introduction to Web Design at Cornell (ever heard of it?). At the start of the semester the professor was thrilled to show off her new convertible laptop that she could fold over and write on using a special pen. She presented PowerPoint slides during each class, and after a few minutes the slides would have highlights, questions, and notes scribbled all over. Later in the day she would upload her improvised slides to the class website. I recall this being a clever process for disseminating information because it combined prepared and improvised thoughts into a single source.

These laptops were particularly popular amongst MBA students (yes I took a few MBA courses while I was a CS grad student). A handful would take notes on the screen, but most settled for the traditional laptop orientation. I believe the reason these laptops actually sold well was not because of the fancy handwriting technology, but because it was an innovative feature placed on top of a traditional laptop. If you were walking by you would most likely not notice that the laptop could be converted into an entirely different product.

Fifteen years later (oy) we have the Surface Duo. I am not trying to compare the Duo and old convertible laptops because they fold. They should be looked at together because new technology is placed on top of a traditional device. The smartphone (or cellular telephone” which is what I call it around the house when I am unable to locate it) is now a traditional” product because it has settled into a predictable form: a black rectangle with rounded corners with the front rapidly approaching 100% screen.

The Surface Duo, to its detriment, is not only too far removed from the predictable smartphone form, but it’s also much more expensive than what the market expects to pay ($1399?!). Of course it’s exciting to see new form factors tested by the market. It’s been far too long since we’ve had unusual and fun hardware. However, I predict this will be a dud compared to old convertible laptops which were both competitively priced and recognizable by purchasers.

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