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Will Microsoft's Surface Duo phone conquer the enterprise?

Will businesses find a use for -- and will developers build apps for -- Microsoft's upcoming dual-screen Surface Duo phone? Experts say they can only speculate for now.

Development tools are now available for Microsoft's upcoming Surface Duo phone, a foldable, dual-screen, Android-based device that is set for release in the holiday 2020 season.

Although the form factor is novel, it's unclear if the device will catch on in the enterprise. Experts said the Surface Duo phone has promise for business use, but it is too early to say how -- or if -- developers will support the two-screen format with apps that will take advantage of it.

Surface Duo: Use cases needed

Andrew Hewitt, a Forrester Research analyst, said he believed there were enterprise use cases for the new form factor, especially for front-line workers.

"They could have inventory information on one side and customer input on the other," he said. "In manufacturing, workers could have diagnostic data on one side and a schedule on the other."

knowledge workers -- like those in fields such as law, programming or education -- are a different story, Hewitt said, as such employees often function best when distractions are limited, and a second screen could divert their attention away from tasks. Therefore, those workers might not have much use for the device.

Mark BowkerMark Bowker

Enterprise Strategy Group senior analyst Mark Bowker said it was interesting to see Microsoft step into Google's Android ecosystem; the company's prior phone offerings had used Microsoft's own OSes. The new form factor might prove to be a boon for ecological sustainability, as the Surface Duo phone has the potential to handle the productivity tasks that previously may have required two devices, he said.

Steve Kleynhans, Gartner research vice president, said getting information and tools into the hands of developers early on is an important step for Microsoft, although determining whether the Surface Duo phone will be adequately supported by those developers is pure speculation at this point. When considering how enterprise-focused apps might work on the device, he spoke of several layers of functionality.

Steve KleynhansSteve Kleynhans

"I think, realistically, you have to look at it this way: There are apps that will tolerate the new form factor, apps that will adjust to the new form factor and apps that will be built for the new form factor," he said.

With the first category of apps, Kleynhans said, the hope is that they will not crash when launched.

"Then, you start looking at apps that will do something with the form factor," he said. "Of those, you'd hope to have a few, and Microsoft will have its own apps ready to go at launch."

After that, Kleynhans said, are apps that will use the form factor to provide experiences and benefits that cannot be seen elsewhere. Those apps will likely appear a year or two out from launch.

Andrew HewittAndrew Hewitt

Dual-screen format just wishful thinking?

Hewitt anticipated that there would be at least a few applications available to take advantage of the two screens at launch. He noted that an early complaint about Google's Chromebooks was the fact that apps were not designed to fit the layout properly, as many Android apps were intended for phone screens and not horizontally aligned laptop-style screens.

"I would think Microsoft would have learned from that example," he said.

Hewitt said, while some apps will likely be adapted for the dual-screen format, some programs will be designed specifically for such devices. He added that he had yet to see a dedicated application that would drive enterprise sales of the Surface Duo.

Bowker said enterprise app developers might treat the Surface Duo the way they do Samsung hardware: take existing apps and develop them further to enable more functionality and better compatibility with a device.

I can actually see it [providing] a better workflow than trying to cram everything on a single small display.
Steve KleynhansResearch vice president, Gartner

Apps that take advantage of the new form factor might never materialize if the device stumbles significantly out of the gate, Kleynhans noted. He added, though, that he did not believe the Surface Duo would be an outright flop.

"I think there's a combination of significant wishful thinking in the industry and some really creative ideas," he said.

Kleynhans said he believed the device might provide a better user experience for employees, but the initial expense will be as much of a limiting factor as anything else.

"I can actually see it [providing] a better workflow than trying to cram everything on a single small display," he said. "That will be enough to keep [the device] up for a year or two, but then it really does have to pick up, and we'll need to get developers to really leverage the platform in a significant way."

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