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Microsoft's surprising Surface event

Microsoft's Surface Pro tablet/phone hybrid.
Photo: Microsoft

With all the leaks ahead of Microsoft's hardware event Wednesday, it was hard to imagine the company had many surprises left to share. But, oh, did it.

Driving the news: Yes, the company launched the expected Surface laptop and a pair of Surface Pro tablet/phone hybrids. But it also previewed 2 other devices due out next year that few were expecting.

  • The Surface Neo is a dual-screen device that folds into all kinds of shapes including, tablet, tiny laptop and booklet.
  • The tinier dual-screen device called Surface Duo is a smartphone-computer hybrid running Android.

Why it matters: The move shows a new commitment to devices that run Microsoft's software and services above and beyond the firm's commitment to Windows. That thinking, which would have been heretical in years past, is a hallmark of the Satya Nadella era. (Recall that one of Nadella's first moves as CEO was to preside over the launch of Office for the iPad.)

The bigger picture: There's a lot to unpack beyond just the devices, some of which won't be available until next year anyway.

  • The big shocker was the Android-based Duo. While the prototype that Microsoft showed bears a strong resemblance to Windows 10, the operating system at its core is actually Google's flavor of Android, meaning it will pack Google's apps and the Google Play store.
  • The event also marked an attempt by Microsoft to move beyond its dedication to Intel-based chips. The 15-inch Surface Laptop uses a Ryzen processor from AMD, while the Surface Pro X uses a Microsoft chipset powered by a custom Qualcomm Snapdragon processor.

History lesson: As many were quick to point out, the debut of a dual-screen device has been more than a decade in the making. Under Robby Bach, Microsoft's entertainment and devices unit cooked up a concept called Courier. Steve Ballmer killed the project amid strong objections from the Windows team.

History lesson #2: As far fewer remember, this isn't the first marriage of Microsoft and Android.

  • When Microsoft acquired Nokia's smartphone business, it inherited the Nokia X, a phone built on top of open-source Android, with services from Microsoft replacing those from Google.
  • Microsoft quickly pulled the plug on the effort when it acquired Nokia.
  • More recently, Microsoft has invested in getting versions of Office and other Microsoft services included on Samsung and other Android devices.

The bottom line: Microsoft showed it continues to think outside the box with its hardware line, but the company has some big hurdles to overcome if it wants its most innovative devices to be successful.

  • The Surface Pro X, with its Qualcomm-based processor, will have to do what past ARM-based Windows machines have failed to do: run a wide variety of Windows applications with sufficient performance.
  • The Surface Neo uses a yet-to-be released version of Windows 10, Windows 10X, that is designed for dual-screen devices. But to really be successful, Microsoft will need app developers to build compelling experiences for the category, which will also see entries from traditional PC makers.
  • The Surface Duo, meanwhile, will have to take on a broad range of Android-based devices, presumably including a lot more foldable and dual-screen phones.

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