Android Intelligence Analysis

The most interesting Android question of the year

Hint: It has nothing to do with Google — not directly, anyway.

android question
Alexas_Fotos/JR Raphael

Android Intelligence Analysis

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We've got some hefty stuff happening in the land o' Android right now, and that's putting it mildly. Google just squeezed out a surprise extra developer preview of the upcoming Android 11 release and announced an official date for the software's beta debut; the Pixel 4a is leaking left and right and inching ever closer to its arrival; and Google's starting to rebrand stuff at an almost comical pace. (Not to worry: That last bit is a common mating-season ritual for the mysterious Google beast.)

All of that, though — not to mention the host of other high-profile phone launches trickling out every four to seven seconds as of late — could end up seeming like small potatoes compared to the impact a far less closely watched Android-associated moment is poised to have.

It's a moment that's expected to arrive later this year and one that could seriously shake up the Android ecosystem in some fascinating ways. And it's coming from one of the most unlikely mobile-tech players of all.

Microsoft's Android moment

Let's not beat around the bush any longer: The moment is the arrival of Microsoft's long-discussed Surface Duo dual-screen Android device. Now, I know what you're thinking: "The Surface Duo?! That weird hingey gizmo that doesn't even fold and is bound to have niche appeal? Have you lost your mind, man?" Well, the answer is an unambiguous yes; clearly, anyone who poses rhetorical questions to himself within a published column has a few screws loose in the ol' upper chamber.

But regardless of the state of my marbles, the proposition is real: Microsoft's Surface Duo has the potential to be the most interesting Android device we've seen in ages — and it's accompanied by what is hands-down the most interesting question floating around the Android universe right now:

Can Microsoft shake up the sad state of Android upgrades?

It's a weighty matzo ball to wrap your mind around, I realize, but there's good reason to believe it might just be a possibility — the best one we've seen in ages, anyway. We'll get to the reasons why in a second.

First, a quick catch-up on what the Surface Duo's all about: The Duo, announced last fall and still expected to go on sale before the 2020 holiday season (though not alongside the slate of new Surface computers launched this week), is Microsoft's first homemade Android phone. And it's not just any regular ol' Android phone, either: It sports two separate screens and — as you so elegantly put it a minute ago — a weird hingey thing between 'em. (I couldn't have said it better myself.) The device folds in half, like a notebook, but doesn't have any of the flaw-filled flexible display silliness other phone-makers are forcing upon us for their own selfish reasons.

Instead, the Surface Duo provides dual displays that act as separate but complementary parts of the phone-using experience, with an entire array of software patterns to support that concept. As I wrote earlier this year (and good golly, I do love quoting myself):

Microsoft actually took a thoughtful approach to how an extended-screen setup should work and precisely what sort of real-world, instantly relatable value it should provide. Instead of taking a cool-looking new kind of technology and then trying to find a reason for it to exist, Microsoft came up with the reason — and then came up with the device to support it. With all the wild phone forms flying around right now, that's something no other company has yet managed to do.

In other words, the Duo sure looks like it could have all the practical productivity benefits foldable phones are lacking — and without all the hardware-driven drawbacks those devices possess. Intriguing, no? And niche of a notion as it may be, the niche in question is the world of business, enterprise, and other productivity-focused tech owners — the sorts of folks who are less interested in gimmicks and more interested in real-world, work-enhancing value.

And that brings us back to that broader topic of upgrades and why the Surface Duo could be one to watch.

A domain desperate for disruption

If you've been listening to me flap my yap for long, you know how I feel about the state of Android upgrades. It's not even a feeling, really, but rather more of an objective reality: By and large and with rare exception, Android upgrades suck. (Hey, we're all friends here. No need to sugarcoat it.) And that's a problem in particular for business-minded users who are serious about security, privacy, and other foundational phone areas that OS updates address in a major way.

You know the deal by now, right? Outside of Google and its own Pixel line of products, most Android phone-makers do a consistently terrible job of sending out software updates to their users. The data says it all, and despite heavily hyped narratives to the contrary, things aren't really getting much better — not by any meaningful measure.

The underlying reason is simple: Outside of Google, most device-makers don't have the motivation to make timely and ongoing post-sales software support a priority. I mean, think about it: They make their money mostly by selling you hardware. Software updates require time and resources, and the companies doing all that legwork don't get anything tangible back in return. If anything, updates arguably work against most device-makers' interests, as getting phone-improving updates early and often makes your current phone seem consistently new, fresh, and current enough to keep using. And what do the companies making those devices want you to do? Yup, you guessed it: buy new phones as frequently as possible.

Within the realm of Android, Google is essentially the sole exception. It makes some money by selling you hardware, sure, but the lion's share of its revenue comes from ads — which are enabled and supported by your use of Google services. It's simple: The more time you spend online, the more information Google gleans about you. And the more targeted, effective ads it can then show you in various places whilst you're staring at your screen. If you own a Pixel phone and have a great experience, you'll use your Pixel phone more often. And so Google ultimately wins, even if you don't buy new devices all that regularly.

Now think back to Microsoft. Microsoft, like Google, makes its own devices — including, soon, the very Surface Duo we're discussing here today. But at its core, the company is less about hardware and more about platforms, software, and services. The hardware is mostly just a way to bring you further into the Microsoft ecosystem — an ecosystem Microsoft has worked carefully to build up within Android.

So what about Samsung? Well, Samsung may try to make money off services (occasionally in, ahem, some slightly questionable ways) — but despite its best efforts to build out its own ecosystem, no one gives a damn about Bixby. And no one's clamoring to do business with the Galaxy Store. Samsung's earnings are driven by hardware sales, plain and simple. Google's are driven by advertising, with hardware acting as an insignificant footnote.

And guess what? Microsoft's breakdown is much more similar to Google's than it is to Samsung's. The company doesn't even break device sales out as its own category in its earnings, which speaks volumes about their place in the lineup.

I hate to bore you with all that corporate mumbo-jumbo, but we're touching on all of this financial dullery to drive home the point that Microsoft is in a pretty unique position as the sole company outside of Google for which device sales alone are not the primary goal or motivation — and for which providing long-term software updates has some real tangible benefits.

Not only that, but Microsoft is about the only Android-involved company other than Google with experience at providing timely software updates on a large scale — and a history of prioritizing that.

See where this is going now?

If there's one company that could shake up the sad state of Android upgrades and provide a new standard with which other device-makers will be forced to compare, Microsoft certainly seems like it. Google may have been setting that standard itself for some time now, but it's never been a big enough force in the hardware game to have much widespread impact.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has a loyal and devoted base of business-minded users. It has the apps and services tons of enterprises are already relying on — apps and services that have gotten really good on Android over the years, by the way — and it has the foundation for its own mini-ecosystem within Android already established, with compelling and practical new cross-platform tools showing up constantly. It has all the pieces in place. All that's left is for it to start actively playing.

Earlier this year, I wrote that Microsoft was "the new Android trailblazer" — that Microsoft, not Google, might be responsible for the most consequential changes to the way we use and think about Android in 2020. At the time, I was thinking primarily about the experience-related implications of the Surface Duo and how that device seemed poised to push Android's multi-panel future forward in a way no other phone had managed.

When you zoom out even further, though, you realize there might be even more to the idea of Microsoft paving the way for a new era in Android — in an area where fresh blood and custom-defying challenges could make a world of difference. The cards all seem to be in place, and the expectations are taking shape. Now let's see if Microsoft can actually deliver and give Android the kick in the pants it so desperately needs.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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