Surface Duo and Surface Duo 2 owners are rejoicing this week, as Gmail’s Android client is finally usable over the twin screens of the Duo. The improved support may be a quirk of development, but it shows how the Surface Duo experience will improve over the next few months with only a little input from Microsoft beyond an Android update.
Previously, Microsoft’s dual-screen Android-powered Surface Duo and Surface Duo 2 required apps to recognise the two displays and to take appropriate action. For the countless number of ‘list of items, and click on them to read’ apps, the natural method would be to place the list (be it emails, invitations, scores, or whatever) on the left-hand side of the screen and the expanded view on the right.
Naturally, Microsoft’s own apps manage this comfortably. I’m going to highlight Outlook’s approach to this interface as the right way to do things; it uses both screens to get the most benefit, the physical feel of a book is relatable, and it allows the UI in a sense to move into the background let you get on with your work.
The problem is that not every developer coded for the dual-screen format when the Duo family arrived. Apps could run happily on one screen, but when the unique form factor was put to use, things could get ugly – the apps currently see the Duo as an Android tablet with a contagious screen, even though there’s a massive physical bar down the middle. That made many third-party apps unusable.
These weren’t esoteric apps. Some of the world’s most widely used apps suffer from this flaw. That includes core apps like Google’s Gmail. Your email list took up some of the left-hand side of the screen, while the body text of your emails was obscured and unreadable.
Google has rolled out an update to Gmail that now places the email list on the left screen and the body of the email on the right screen when Surface Duo users span the app. Gmail is usable in all its forms.
This looks like the Surface Duo has benefitted from a redesign of the app to increase support for foldable devices in general. The central spine of a foldable is being replicated (at least in software) by the Duo’s gap between the screens. Nevertheless, Gmail’s support for foldables now extends to dual-screened devices.
This is a process that is likely to continue as foldable devices capture more market share. Manufacturers’ adoption of Android 12L – a branch of Android designed to offer more specialised support for tablets, foldables, and dual-screened devices – will give developers various universal APIs into devices so their apps will run on a much wider range of transforming devices.
Microsoft has confirmed that the Surface Duo family will be adopting Android 12L in a future update. When that happens, the compatibility of apps with the dual-screen format will be on a par with other foldable phones and tablets. The Surface Duo has proven to be a solid device with a lot of utility around information management. With 12L and more apps supporting the form factor, the value of that utility can only increase.