Microsoft surprised the market three years ago when it used Android for its weird Surface Duo.
Now it has dropped another surprise. It has set customers adrift by saying it will not upgrade the first generation device’s Android operating system.
Android phone makers have a long history of not upgrading the software on their devices. A decade ago, many flagship phones from brands like Huawei never received any software updates.
Android device makers often slack about software updates
More recently, phone makers have committed to at least three years of software updates. In some cases they support phones for longer.
This is in contrast to Apple which now supports its iPhone models with iOS upgrades for six years.
And it doesn’t square with Microsoft’s behaviour with Windows devices which have been supported for many years.
Three years, that’s your lot
Microsoft promised three years of software support when it launched the Surface Duo. While it kept that promise, the market and user expectations have moved on.
During those three years, Microsoft updated the device’s Android software twice. Many other Android device makers managed to update software three times during the same period. Annual Android updates are the standard.
Users have the option of installing a non-Microsoft Android update, but that requires technical skill that would be beyond many Surface Duo customers. And, where the device was purchased by a company, it can mean a support headache for IT staff.
Not updating system software doesn’t mean a device will cease functioning. But it does mean devices with unsupported software can quickly become insecure and leave users locked out of advanced functionality.
The lack of Android software updates changes the relative economics of the devices compared with Apple phones or tablets.
While Apple hardware can have a higher initial cost, buyers can spread that cost over more years. This means the lifetime cost of owning Apple devices can be lower than the cost of owning Android devices.
What was Microsoft thinking?
The Surface Duo was always a strange device for Microsoft. It is part folding phone, part tablet. The two screens sit side-by-side connected by a hinge.
When Microsoft first launched its Surface range of hardware, it said the idea was to showcase Windows technology. Surface was meant to give users the best Windows experience and inspire other hardware makers to lift their game.
Using the Surface brand for the Android-powered Duo undermines this message.
It's no accident that the Surface Duo has not been a success.
Microsoft and phones - not a happy history
The Surface Duo was the first phone from the company since its foray into the market with Windows Phone 8 a decade ago. Microsoft spent billions buying the Nokia phone business and building a range of, at times, excellent phones.
The earlier phones sold well at first, but failed to keep momentum going. One huge problem was the lack of third party software for the devices. While Apple’s App Store and Google Play had catalogues of millions of apps, the Windows Phone App Store had thousands. In many cases the apps were inferior and slower to update.
When people ask me about buying phones, I tell them to take the whole life of the device into account. Longer software support means iPhones hold their value for longer than Androids or can be handed down to family members and will work out less expensive over time.