Microsoft has always been a software company. It's what made it the most valuable company on earth (twice), and it's what makes it so interesting that the company has been making some serious hardware for a few years now.

And when I say serious hardware, I mean it's seriously good. I'm not a Windows user, and you'd have to pry my MacBook Pro out of my cold, dead hands if you tried to make me switch, but I will freely admit: Microsoft has some serious design chops. 

New Surface Devices

Take, for example, the slate of new products the company introduced yesterday, like the updated versions of the Surface Laptop, including a 15-inch model. The Surface Laptop 3, as it's called, also finally gets USB-C, which is long overdue. It's impressive, but it's not even close to the highlight of the event, at least from the standpoint of innovation.

That would be the introduction of two new dual-screen devices, the Surface Neo and the Surface Duo. It's actually not even a new concept. Microsoft worked on a similar product called Courier back in 2008, though it canceled the project two years later without a product ever being released. 

Surface Duo

The most interesting thing about the smaller of the two devices, known as Surface Duo, is that it's a Microsoft product that runs Android. Which is because it's a foldable smartphone, though Microsoft really doesn't want you to call it a phone.

But it is. It's a foldable smartphone that, unlike Samsung's Galaxy Fold, avoids the messy technical problems of foldable screens. Instead, this one has two screens and opens like a book. Instead of focusing on futuristic display technology that isn't quite ready for prime time, Microsoft is focusing on the user experience.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told Wired magazine that "the operating system is no longer the most important layer for us ... What is most important for us is the app model and the experience." Which is probably why it doesn't run Windows Mobile.

Surface Neo

The larger device, known (at least for now) as Surface Neo, is a dual-screen device with a movable keyboard that attaches magnetically and charges wirelessly. You can place it over one of the screens, and it covers about two-thirds of that screen, leaving space for a virtual touchpad (at the bottom) or what Microsoft calls Wunderbar (at the top). The latter feature is sort of like a giant version of Apple's Touch Bar.

What's really interesting about Microsoft's strategy here is that the device will run a variant of the company's operating system known as Windows X, which will also reportedly power future dual-screen devices from Dell, Asus, Lenovo, and HP. 

This incarnation finally begs the question of whether the world needs a dual-screen device, and if so, for what?

Interestingly, both devices will be able to run different apps across both screens, or in some cases, span both displays, opening up a range of potential uses. For example, Microsoft points out that you can arrange the displays back to back to present PowerPoint slides on the front, while viewing your notes on the reverse side.

And, according to Georg Petschnigg, CIO of WeTransfer and the CEO of FiftyThree--the developers of the popular Paper app--the Duo especially has major creative potential. "Mobile creation and productivity has great potential. I would not be surprised if Google and Microsoft invest in a new App Store based on Android for the Duo," Petschnigg told me.

A Real Challenge to Apple?

In fact, I think you could argue Microsoft has done something that many tech observers and creative entrepreneurs (like me) would have never thought possible: transition from making boring software like spreadsheets and email servers into a company that now rivals Apple in terms of design and user experience.

Microsoft won't actually start selling either device until the holiday season in 2020, more than a year away at this point. Normally, tech companies keep innovative new products under wraps until they're almost ready to ship, but in this case Microsoft is putting them out there for the world to see.

You might even say it's putting the world--and companies like Apple--on notice. 

Published on: Oct 3, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.