Microsoft's new dual-screen computer is the company's most important product in years

Key Points
  • The Surface helped usher in an era of 2-in-1 computers.
  • The new Surface Neo, due out in 2020, may represent the future of where Microsoft and its partners take Windows.
  • The Surface Neo could be the most important product Microsoft launches in years.
Microsoft unveiled the new Neo laptop.

Microsoft announced seven new products in its Surface lineup Wednesday, but the most important one is the Surface Neo, a new dual-screen computer that folds up like a book.

If the Surface Neo works — and that's a huge caveat because Microsoft wouldn't let me touch the prototype Wednesday — it will give us a brand new kind of computer, the same way the Surface introduced new two-in-ones when it was first announced in 2012.

The Surface Neo is thin, light and can show two apps on two different screens when it's open. A detachable keyboard can magnetically attach to one screen, allowing you to use it like a traditional laptop. Or you can just use one display like a tablet.

There isn't anything like it out there, but its form factor has represented Microsoft's vision of the future since at least 2008, when Microsoft was reportedly working on a similar device called the Courier. That never launched, but the Neo is set to launch by the holidays of 2020.

Here's why it's important.

It's a refinement of what the Surface represents

The Surface Neo also has a touchscreen display above the keyboard.

When the Surface first launched in 2012, it was marketed as one product that can do everything. It didn't do that at first, but by the time the Surface Pro rolled around in 2013 it started to become something practical that actually worked.

You could use it to watch movies or browse the web in tablet mode, or you could connect a keyboard and do real work.

In the years following, Microsoft hasn't made massive changes to the Surface. It's worked to improve the hardware by slimming it down and making it more powerful. It's beefed up the pen, the display, the keyboard, the speakers and more.

But the idea of the Surface has stayed the same: It's a tablet with a kickstand that serves as a full-fledged Windows machine. Along the way, it has showed how other partners can build similar products that run Windows 10, Microsoft's real moneymaker. But it still doesn't quite do everything. The Neo might.

An example of the future of Windows

The Surface Neo folds open and has two screens.

Microsoft needs something more exciting than the Surface, which is probably why it built the Neo. It can't rely on partners to come up with these ideas, since Microsoft is the one building the software behind its products.

Microsoft needs to be the one with the vision of where Windows goes next. The partners can do the rest. That's where the Surface Neo comes in.

The Neo runs Windows 10X, a special version of Windows 10 that's designed for the new two-screen form factor. With the Neo and Windows 10X, Microsoft is introducing new software and hardware that other companies can use and mimic to build new Windows machines of their own.

Remember: Microsoft isn't a hardware company. It sells hardware, but it wins when more people use Windows computers, no matter who builds them.

It's OK if the Surface Neo fails at first

The dual-screen Surface Neo 5.

The Surface Neo doesn't need to be a hit at first. The original Surface RT bombed back in 2012, since it ran WindowsRT, a version of Windows 8 that didn't support very many apps.

But the hardware was right: People like computers that work as tablets and can plug into keyboards. The Surface ushered in a whole new two-in-one era of devices. Dell, Microsoft, Lenovo, HP, Samsung and others all sell computers that are just like the Surface. Even Apple started adding keyboards to the iPad with the launch of the iPad Pro in 2015.

A new way to use Windows

Microsoft unveiled the Surface Neo on Wednesday.

Right now, you probably use Windows in one of two places: At your desk or, if you have a Surface, maybe in your lap. But the Surface Neo might make it more of a computer you can use while walking around, similar to an iPad but potentially more powerful since it can run all Windows software.

"Surface Neo seems like the perfect kind of device I could take from meeting to meeting and walk the trade show floor with," Patrick Moorhead, founder and president of Moor Insights & Strategy said. "When I get back to the office, I could see plugging it into a large display, keyboard and mouse, using Neo as a second display."

You can do that with an iPad, but the current Surface Pro is too big to walk around a trade show floor with. The Neo, with a smaller 9-inch screen, makes it more compelling for on-the-go use.

It needs to launch

The dual-screen Surface Neo.

Much of this won't matter if Microsoft doesn't get the Surface Neo out the door. It's promised by the end of 2020, but lots of companies announce products that never make it to the market. It's possible this happens to the Neo, or it has so many problems that nobody wants to buy one. But maybe it fails and Microsoft refines it a year later. Or a partner creates a device that does it better. If that happens, then we have the next generation of exciting Windows devices, and that's all Microsoft really needs.

First look at Microsoft's new folding phone the Surface Duo and dual-screen laptop the Surface Neo
First look at Microsoft's new folding phone the Surface Duo