Tech

Microsoft's two-screen laptop won't succeed on its own — software makers will have to jump on board

Key Points
  • Microsoft has previously come out with Windows RT and Windows 10 S Mode that presented app compatibility challenges.
  • The company will give developers information on what they'll have to do to make their apps work well with Windows 10 X at its Build developer conference in May 2020.
Microsoft unveiled the new Neo laptop.

Microsoft's Surface Neo two-screened laptop, due out next year, sparked a lot of interest when Microsoft unveiled it Wednesday -- although it won't ship until next holiday season, it looks like a genuine step forward from traditional laptops and tablets.

"Surface Neo is the first MS device I'll buy," Guillermo Rauch, CEO of start-up Zeit, wrote in a tweet on Wednesday.

The catch is, it's not clear if all popular Windows apps will work the same way as the ones Microsoft demonstrated on stage. For that to happen, software makers will have to put some effort in -- and there's no guarantee they'll do so unless the product takes off, creating a potential chicken-and-egg situation.

The challenge gets at the complexity of shipping an operating system that runs lots of software, and it's a long-standing challenge for Microsoft.

Specifically, the Surface Neo will rely on a new "expression" of its Windows 10 operating system called Windows 10X. In 2012 announced the Surface RT that used a variant of Windows 8 called Windows RT, and in 2017 it introduced the Surface Laptop that booted Windows 10 S. These specialty versions limited what people could do with their devices.

Surface Neo and Windows 10X probably won't be financially material to Microsoft, as it's more focused these days on the Azure public cloud and Office 365 subscription-based productivity apps. Even so, Microsoft is the most valuable publicly traded company, and its high-concept visions for the future of computing sometimes set the pace for the rest of the industry -- for instance, Apple execs initially scoffed at the idea of a hybrid tablet-laptop when the first Surface was introduced in 2012, but in 2015 Apple introduced the iPad Pro which featured an optional add-on keyboard.

How's it going to work, exactly?

Right now, Microsoft has provided few technical details of how software makers will be able to take advantage of the new dual-screen form-factor.

"We'll ... be engaging with our app developer ecosystem as Windows 10X presents unique opportunities for them to enrich their experiences with dual-screen PCs. We'll have more to share on that in the coming months," Eran Megiddo, corporate vice president for Windows and education at Microsoft, wrote in a blog post on Wednesday.

Developers don't need to do anything special in order to make Windows apps work on devices that will run Windows 10X, but developers will be able to optimize apps for dual-screen devices, Microsoft says.

Traditional Win32 apps will run in containers on Windows 10X, and the variant will also support Progressive Web Apps and Universal Windows Apps, the Verge reported. It's not clear that they all will immediately be able to do what Microsoft apps like Outlook did at Microsoft's Wednesday event, like expand from one screen onto both, or show different app content on each of the two screens.

"Our goal is that the vast majority of apps in the Windows Store will work with Windows 10X," Microsoft partner group program manager Carmen Zlateff told the publication. The Windows Store doesn't necessarily have every app that people might want to use, though.

The company will reportedly give explain more about Windows 10X at its Build conference in Seattle in May 2020.

"I'm fascinated Microsoft pre-announced this a year early, but this device needs a lot of application and Windows 10X development work for apps to flow perfectly," Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy told CNBC in an email on Wednesday.

WATCH: Microsoft unveils Surface Neo two-screened laptop, due to be released in 2020

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Microsoft unveils Surface Neo two-screened laptop, for 2020 release