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Forget foldable screens. Two-screen mobile devices are the future

At its annual Surface event, Microsoft announced a phone and tablet with two screens. It’s an ambitious bet on the future of productivity.

Forget foldable screens. Two-screen mobile devices are the future
[Photo: courtesy of Microsoft]

What’s the best way to get things done? Many people swear by dual monitors at their desks, enabling them to multitask with multiple applications open. My husband is so dependent on his dual-screen setup at work that he converts our TV into a second screen on the few days that he works from home.

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That’s why it makes perfect sense that Microsoft is betting that the future of mobile devices—at least for people who really care about productivity—has two screens, not just one. And at its annual hardware event in New York on Wednesday, the company announced its plans to create both a tablet and a phone that have two screens, bound together using dozens of tiny cables that are thinner than a human hair. The Surface Neo tablet and smaller Surface Duo smartphone are supposed to ship for next year’s holiday season.

According to Robin Seiler, corporate vice president of program management for devices at Microsoft, part of the decision to create a dual-screen tablet and phone comes from studies on the best ways for people to work. The company’s researchers have found that using two screens reduces cognitive load by a whopping 42%. “You not only are more productive, but you feel more productive,” Seiler says. “It’s a super interesting insight that you don’t get unless you start studying.”

Surface Duo [Photo: courtesy of Microsoft]
The Surface Duo is similar in its form factor to the early attempts at foldable phones that are arriving. But Samsung’s Galaxy Fold has a screen that literally folds into two—and coincidentally has been so rife with problems that Samsung delayed the U.S. launch from April to September so it could revise its screen cover and hinge. And all current folding-screen devices use vulnerable plastic screens rather than the sturdy Gorilla Glass we’re accustomed to on other mobile gadgets. (That may change, but not immediately.)

Instead of trying to create a screen that can really fold, Microsoft has instead just put two screens next to each other, with a hinge that’s supposed to feel good in your hands (though that remains to be seen, as the company just showed off prototypes). It claims these screens are the thinnest possible LCDs.

Surface Duo [Photo: courtesy of Microsoft]
Some internet commenters have said that any dual-screen device that has a screen border down the middle won’t be able to offer the same kind of user experience as one with a single foldable screen. But the reality is that people work on multiple screens all the time—mostly screens that are physically disconnected from each other, like a desktop PC with multiple flat screens. If Microsoft can build software that’s good enough to support the Surface Duo and Surface Neo, there’s a good chance people won’t mind that black line down the middle at all.

We also got a glimpse of what that software might look like at the event this week. In Windows 10X, which will run on dual-screen devices, when you first open an application it will occupy just one screen. To have it take over both, all you do is drag it to the middle of the tablet or phone. Then it will fill both screens, optimizing the layout automatically to whatever makes sense for that application. For instance, your email might transition from a single view of your inbox to a double-screen view that shows your inbox on one side and a specific message on the other.

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Surface Neo [Photo: courtesy of Microsoft]
The software functionality seems particularly impressive on the Surface Neo, which has a magnetic keyboard that sits on the backside of one of the screens while not in use. When you flip it up, it covers half of the bottom screen—but the half of the screen that’s still visible is still put to use. It can act as an emoji keyboard, or a place to park a few other applications that don’t need as much real estate (like a Netflix show you want to keep watching while dashing off a few emails).

Surface Neo [Photo: courtesy of Microsoft]
Regardless of whether the Neo or Duo become the runaway hits that Microsoft hopes they will be, the company is actually trying to introduce a new kind of design that will inject some more energy into the now standardized consumer tech lineup. Smartphones, laptops, and tablets are all so mature that it’s tough to radically improve on existing hardware designs. But introducing another screen (one without the compromises of current folding screens) is a bold move. It’s one that people have long been intrigued by, dating all the way back to 2009, when a video of a two-screen device called the Courier leaked to the public. While that project was shuttered, the Neo brings a similarly exciting ambition back to consumer electronics.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is the deputy editor of Fast Company's technology section. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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