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How Google and Microsoft teamed up to try to reinvent smartphones

The inside story of how two trillion-dollar companies — and ruthless competitors — built the Surface Duo.

Panos Panay introduces the Surface Duo.

Panos Panay introduces the Surface Duo.

Photo: Microsoft

When Hiroshi Lockheimer arrived in Redmond, Washington, in the summer of 2019, nothing about the trip seemed unusual. As Google's head of Android, Chrome and more, Lockheimer meets with practically everyone in tech. This time, he was in town with a colleague from Google's business development team for a meeting with Microsoft.

At the end of their regularly scheduled programming, though, someone asked Lockheimer if he had an hour to spare. Someone else at Microsoft wanted to talk to him about something else. Lockheimer said yes to this mysterious invite, and a few minutes later, he found himself in a room with Panos Panay, Microsoft's chief product officer. Panay had something odd to show him.

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Panay and a small team within Microsoft had been looking forward to this meeting for a while. And maybe dreading it a little. See, they'd had this idea: Maybe there was room in the market for a mobile device with two screens, that could run two apps side by side, that could be more productive than a smartphone or tablet without feeling like a hefty computer. (Microsoft has been having this idea for a very long time.) They'd even built a prototype, though it didn't do much. Almost nobody knew about it, both because it was brand new and because it had this weird quirk: It was going to run Android. The Windows Company was working on a Google device.

That prototype would eventually become the Surface Duo, a $1,400 device launching Thursday. It's not quite a smartphone, not quite a tablet, but it very much represents Microsoft's (and now Google's) ideas about the future of productivity. The Duo's launch is an end for the two companies, but also a beginning; Panay and Lockheimer both say they're not tied to this device so much as the idea and the experience. Two tech giants are pooling their resources to make a big bet on the future of computing, and it never would have gotten off the ground if they hadn't first figured out how to work together.

Hiroshi Lockheimer and Panos Panay Google's Hiroshi Lockheimer (left) and Microsoft's Panos Panay.Photo: Google and Microsoft

Long before that meeting in Redmond, Panay and the Surface team decided the Surface Duo couldn't be a Windows device. It needed Android. Anyone can fork and develop on Android, of course, but for this strange new thing to be great, it needed the Play Store, it needed Google Maps, it needed the millions of apps people expect on the device in their pocket. It also needed a huge amount of development to make apps run on side-by-side screens, both from Google and from app developers. The only way to get developers on board, Microsoft knew, would be to turn the dual-screen shape into a trend bigger than one Microsoft gizmo, so they wanted to give all their work to the broader Android ecosystem.

So Panay decided to reach out to Google, and see if the companies might be able to work on this device together. If not? No Duo. "If he's like, 'I don't think I want to do this,' we wouldn't make the product," Panay said. "It was either, we're doing it together, or we're not doing it." Panay and his team schemed for a while on how best to reach out to Lockheimer. When they found out he'd be in town anyway, they casually slid onto his schedule for a decidedly uncasual meeting. Lockheimer didn't know it, but when he walked into that meeting, he held the Surface Duo's fate in his hands.

The two men knew of each other but had never met in person or worked together. Both are experienced in hardware and software and well-versed in what it takes to hack it in the mobile business. In a room together, Panay tends toward the passionate cheerleader, while Lockheimer is more self-effacing and relaxed. But both have well-earned reputations as product thinkers, which helped forge a quick connection. "It was kind of a test," Panay said, remembering that first meeting, "to see if Hiroshi is a product maker or a business leader … and that alignment was clear to me."

After some small talk (and some awkward signing of confidentiality agreements), Panay laid out the vision. He had that early prototype, a few pictures and a rough pitch. "It's the Microsoft you love and the Android you know," Panay told Lockheimer, "and we want to put these together." He explained what it could mean for customers to run multiple apps at a time, to get more done on portable devices. He talked about emotions and flow, as he often does. And then he asked for help. To make the dual-screen idea real, he told Lockheimer, "that would take your team, not my team."

Surface Duo insides Before it was a working Android device, the Surface Duo was just a hardware prototype with a plan.Photo: Microsoft

Lockheimer's first reaction was to tell a story. When he'd started working on Android in 2006, "one of the things we used to say to each other was 'let's build a platform that's so open — open source, but also open in concept and open in execution — that even a company like Microsoft would be comfortable adopting this.'" More than a decade later, this meeting felt like coming full circle. Plus, it was just exciting to see a different idea about mobile sitting on a table in front of him.

But Lockheimer didn't just say yes, Google's in, let's go build a phone together. Right after the initial excitement came a question: How would this even work? Google and Microsoft, two trillion-dollar companies, ruthless competitors on so many fronts, working in tandem to create a new device? After their meeting ended, Lockheimer sat in the car with his colleague on their way back to the airport and tried to think it through. They also gut-checked each other, and made sure they'd actually just had the conversation they thought.

Getting over the hurdles

Not that many years ago, this collaboration would have been impossible. Microsoft revolved around Windows, and in fact spent years and billions trying to kill Android. When it acquired Nokia to get back into the mobile game, what did Microsoft do first? Kill all of Nokia's Android products. Stephen Elop told his team that "within Microsoft, all our devices are intended to embody the finest of Microsoft's digital work and digital life experiences, while accruing value to Microsoft's overall strategy."

Even the Surface, early on, was sold as "the ultimate stage for Windows." The Windows team, current and former employees said, effectively controlled the whole project. But when the early generations of Surfaces flopped, the strategy shifted. The Surface became about productivity and portability, not about running Windows. And then it started to sell.

Under Satya Nadella, Microsoft changed even more, becoming a "cloud-first, mobile-first" company rather than Those People Who Make Windows. "The operating system is no longer the most important layer for us," Nadella said in an interview with Wired last year. "What is most important for us is the app model and the experience." Over the last few years, Microsoft has become a prolific and successful developer on both iOS and Android. With projects like the new Chromium-based Edge, it's even getting used to working with Google software.

Google, meanwhile, has shifted the other way, taking its mobile future much more into its own hands with the Pixel line. It's also begun to bring more of the Android experience out of the open-source world and under its control. Anyone can technically have Android, but the best of the platform comes only through Google.

At the same time, though, the Pixel hasn't taken over the mobile industry, and most of the Android money being made is going to Samsung. So what does Google need? A win. A new idea about devices, a hardware partner to push the ecosystem along. And, ideally, someone to help them build the software needed for the multi- and foldable-screen future that's coming.

After their first meeting, Panay was nervous he might have blown his chance. But when he got back to Mountain View, Lockheimer began slowly sharing the idea within his team at Google. First to a few people, then a few more, always getting the same reaction: You want to make what? With who? But he'd explain the vision, and the plan (inasmuch as there was one), and found that people were into it.

A few weeks after their initial meeting, Panay brought a small team to Mountain View and redid his pitch for a team of Microsoft and Google employees, this time with Lockheimer by his side. From that point on, things kicked into gear. There was no hands-in moment, no signing on the dotted line. The two teams just started building a product together. Small cultural differences — should meetings happen on Teams or Meet? Do they last 25 minutes (Google's way) or 30 (Microsoft's)? — mostly fell by the wayside.

The hardest part of the project, both Lockheimer and Panay said, was getting the rest of their companies on board. It was a bit easier for Google, Lockheimer said, since the Android team is used to working with partners that look suspiciously like competitors. Still, every time a new team within either company got involved, it took time and convincing to bring them up to speed. Panay described it this way: "It starts with, 'Hey, we're building this new Surface.' And they're like, 'Whoa, that's awesome, what are we doing?' 'We're building it on Android.' And then … there's a pause." People would ask Panay, you know you're in charge of Windows, right? And he'd say, yes, but we're doing this with Android. "That's a hurdle" for people, Panay said, "and an emotional one."

Current and former employees said Microsoft remains mostly a top-down culture, driven by leaders and corporate edicts, while Google allows employees huge latitude to make and ship stuff. In theory that would make it easier for Panay to get buy-in from the rest of Microsoft, who might be expected to fall in line with the big new product. And it could make it harder within Google, where an Android exec might have trouble persuading a Maps or Gmail product manager to make dual-screen devices a priority.

In reality, though, both companies are heading toward a middle ground. Google has put fewer people — including Lockheimer — in charge of more products, giving them enough purview and power to affect broad change, while Microsoft under Nadella has pushed to give employees more agency. Not everyone within Microsoft could go rogue and build an Android device, certainly, but Panay could pull it off. And in many ways, it's easier to partner with an outsider than navigate complicated internal politics.

But there were some communication hurdles between the companies. Early in their relationship, Panay said, he'd obsess about every email to Lockheimer's team, writing and rewriting everything as if it were an official document. People would hold onto things for too long, trying to get everything just right before sharing outside the company. Everything felt tenuous, and if things stopped working between Google and Microsoft, the whole project would fall apart. Every meeting, every dollar spent, seemed to raise the stakes. Panay said he felt like he was courting Lockheimer for months.

And there was always one big question lingering over the whole project: Is this even going to work? Lockheimer said the most common piece of feedback he'd get from his team was, "Look, it's not easy to influence developers to go do something different." Both companies know this well: Google has spent years trying to get Android developers to build for larger screens and new form factors, with little success. Microsoft has presided over a number of middling attempts at building app ecosystems, from the Microsoft Store to the Universal Windows Platform. With Google and Microsoft supporting the dual-screen setup, they could optimize a lot of popular apps, but they'd need others on board. And that would be tough.

Making it Internet Official

Still, they kept building, kept slowly telling more people what they were up to. And they tried to use the device itself to answer all questions. They weren't building a "special relationship" or investing in each other, they were working together on a dual-screen mobile device. That was the thing. Having a physical object to refer to seemed to help ground every conversation in practicalities rather than turf war. "And by the way," Panay said, "when you boot it up, it has a Microsoft symbol and the Android symbol right next to each other." That became the two companies' symbol of togetherness.

For months, this unofficial partnership roared along in relative secret, until Oct. 2, 2019. That's when Panay, in a polka-dot black shirt and a dark blazer, took the stage in New York at Microsoft's product reveal. He announced and displayed new laptops and tablets, talked about key travel and teraflops, and then took a deep breath. "If this were a symphony," he said, "it would be missing one instrument." He chided the reporters in the audience for all the products they'd leaked, but said they'd missed one. And then he revealed the Surface Duo. After a long pause, he scratched his forehead and said, "I am pretty excited to show this to you." You could see the relief on his face that he was actually showing it off.

That was the moment, Panay said, that this whole thing became real. Even up until the launch event, he worried Lockheimer and Google would bail, would give up, would decide this was a dumb project not worth their time. In that moment, announcing the thing, Panay was kind of locking Google in. And to be sure, he made it Internet Official: He tweeted about it. "Thank you for the incredible partnership @lockheimer," Panay wrote, "working with you over the last few months has been awesome #SurfaceDuo." Lockheimer, who claims now that he slept through the announcement, soon responded: "Hey @panos_panay, thanks! It's been great. Congratulations, and welcome to the #Android ecosystem! #SurfaceDuo." Just like that, it was official. Moving on.

A few months later, as COVID took over and forced Google and Microsoft employees to work from home, Lockheimer and Panay had another of those moments. By then they'd graduated from formal email to constant text messages and phone calls, and the Duo was nearing completion. So one week in early spring (neither remembers exactly when, with the last year blurring together for so many reasons), after months of developing in emulators and wireframes, Panay shipped Lockheimer two working Duos. They showed up not in beautiful product boxes but in beat-up boxes wrapped in bubble wrap and covered in warning stickers. But they worked. That Friday, at 6 p.m. — that part Panay remembers well — the two men caught up on a call in the Google Duo app on their Surface Duo devices.

Now, with the Duo about to go on sale, Panay and Lockheimer refuse to say they've accomplished anything. Both acknowledged that the work is just beginning as they try to both improve the dual-screen experience and bring it to more Android devices. They seem to feel as though they're firmly on the same team, though, pushing toward the same goal. And after so many months of constant talking, meetings and debates, they now interact like colleagues and count each other as friends. "I'm not tired of Panos," Lockheimer said near the end of their first-ever joint interview, before Panay cut him off: "I'm very tired of Hiroshi."

They agree on this much: Their companies can do more together than apart, and there's room yet to move the mobile industry forward. And they both know there's an awful lot of work left to do.

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