Will the enterprise adopt dual-screen or foldable devices? Count me among the skeptics

Granted, vendors might not care at the moment and simply want consumers to pick these up. But, we had these same questions about the iPad.

Over the last year, we’ve seen multiple foldable devices announced from the likes of Samsung, Microsoft, and, surprisingly, Motorola. (I honestly didn’t know they were still around, did you?) We saw the Samsung Fold hit the market last year as one of the first foldable devices commercially available, followed by the Motorola Razr and Samsung Z Flip early in 2020. Later this year, we’ll see (provided there are no delays, of course) Microsoft release the Surface Neo and Duo and Windows 10X (which is focused on dual-screen/foldable devices), and the Lenovo ThinkPad X1. 

Do any of these devices have a place in the enterprise? We have a long history of looking at all sorts of new form factors (Nirvana phone, anyone?) so let’s dive into what these are all about.

Windows 10X

Let’s start with a look at Windows 10X, the modified version of Windows 10 designed for dual-screen and foldable devices. Windows 10X was announced alongside the Surface Neo in October. For now, only the Surface Neo runs Windows 10X, but it’s likely other Windows devices from third-party vendors will follow suit. Windows 10X requires Intel processors, but an ARM version might be released in the future.

Windows 10X can run progressive web apps, web apps, Universal Windows Platform apps, MSIX apps, and Win32 apps. All apps will run in containers, and the Win32 subsystem will only be on when a Win32 app is running.

For those interested in seeing how Windows 10X will look like running on a dual-screen device, Microsoft released an emulator in February. Those testing the emulator said that Windows 10X feels more modern and cleaner looking than Windows 10. Apps don’t run in floating windows and open in the opposite screen where you can then stretch across both screens, if wished. If placed in a vertical, laptop-style, the bottom screen will have a “Wonderbar,” which is basically like a digital version of Apple’s Touch Bar.

Windows 10X will be out alongside the Surface Neo and Duo in time for the holiday 2020 release window.

Surface Neo

Let’s now turn to the first dual-screen device that will run Windows 10X, the Surface Neo, which is the larger of the two Surface devices announced. It has two 9-inch separate glass displays (no folding screen nonsense from Microsoft right now) that unfold into one 13-inch screen. When closed, the dual screens face inward and are mildly protected.

While little is known about the specifics of the internals at the moment, it will use Intel’s Lakefield processors (I wonder if it’ll be a special mobile-specific version?).

Surface Duo

The second device Microsoft announced was the Surface Duo. While Microsoft doesn’t seem keen on calling it a dual-screen phone and instead sees it as a tablet that can make calls, the former feels like the best descriptor. It has two 5.6-inch glass displays that unfold into an 8.3-inch screen. Thanks to its hinge, the Duo can be treated like a 2-in-1 device that can fold so that both screens are facing outward, if you just wish to use one. 

The Surface Duo runs on Android, with the decision based on using all the pre-existing apps. Chief product officer Panos Panay said, “Because those are the apps you want. Because there’s hundreds of thousands of apps, and you want them. … It’s about meeting our customers where they are, where there’re going to be.” So, this should go far better than Windows 10 Mobile and Windows Phone 8 did.

Microsoft released its Android emulator in January. Like the Surface Neo, when launching an app, it appears on the other screen, perhaps allowing users to launch a second app immediately after, if they wish.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1

Unlike the Surface Neo and Duo, Lenovo is releasing a foldable tablet (i.e., the screen itself folds) called the ThinkPad X1, due out sometime in the middle of 2020 and will retail for $2,499. The ThinkPad X1 is a single 13.3-inch screen. It will use Intel Core processors with “Hybrid Technology” and run Windows 10 Pro, but a 10X version is expected after the Surface Neo and Duo go on sale.

While none of the above folding and dual-screen devices are available yet at the time of publishing this, there are a few devices that have.

Foldable smartphones

We have three folding smartphones currently available for sale, the Samsung Fold, Samsung Z Flip, and Motorola Razr. While the Fold folds vertically, the latter two literally went in a different direction and fold horizontally (reminiscent of old flip phones). All three boast a high price tag, though the Razr is not too much more than the iPhone 11 Pro, if you don’t mind the internals being on par with a $500 phone.

All three came out and immediately saw issues when reviewers and customers got their hands on them, and that’s often what the majority of the press around these devices has been about. As far as we can tell, no one’s really been asking for foldable devices. I know reviewers have been complaining for years about how each iteration of the iPhone and Galaxy is not different enough from the previous one, but that doesn’t mean we wanted to jump to foldable devices. They just don’t quite feel ready. They definitely are more cutting edge than many current smartphones, but the noticeable crease in the middle of the screen and durability issues lessen leaves me wanting. Dual screens might be a good middle ground between traditional devices and foldable devices. The dual screen offers more durability since it’s two separate screens working in tandem, you just have to deal with the noticeable gap between the two screens.

My thoughts on folding devices

So, those are the folding or dual-screen devices that are coming out and already out. But, what do I think about them?

I just don’t see them taking off anytime soon. They are really cool to look at and seem like they might be fun to play with for a little bit (haven’t had a chance to interact with any yet), but these initial versions just don’t really offer much. We’ve all heard the stories of their durability, with Samsung delaying the Fold’s launch last year to the Z Flip’s easily scratched screen. Folding devices just can’t stand up to everyday use yet but cost a fortune. For the moment, they’re little more than a novelty to show off if you can swallow the huge price tag.

At the moment, the only device to attract my attention is the Surface Neo. The dual-screen aspect seems like it might hold up to everyday use a little better (it’s not out yet, so I could be wrong here). The size makes it easier to use in a laptop mode (one screen serves as the screen and the other the keyboard) and it boasts a desktop OS—even if that means I’d have to use Windows.

Microsoft’s decision to run Android on the Surface Duo is an interesting wrinkle and shows they’ve learned from the Windows Phone. Hopefully, we’ll see app developers optimize their apps for the dual-screen nature of the Duo, but part of me wonders if most will wait until they see if anyone buys it. (Why spend time optimizing for a device that maybe no one wants?) 

While I was researching and writing this article, I kept trying to come up with enterprise use cases for dual-screen and foldable devices; and, I’ve got to admit to struggling. None of them does anything a laptop or tablet cannot already do and those are proven to stand up to everyday use. I could see, down the line, companies maybe buying a dual-screen device for their frontline workers, much in the same way the iPad has infiltrated the enterprise. Having the smaller Surface Duo when out in the field could be interesting—but I can’t imagine it’ll be cheaper than an iPad, nor as durable, so why switch?

Overall, I remain pessimistic about the immediate future of foldable and dual-screen devices. They’re neat to look at, but the ever-present worry around durability and the high price tags leads me to believe these might not see really any enterprise adoption. Future versions, made more inexpensively and designed to be sturdier, might get use, but for now, I just don’t see it.

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