Microsoft separates Launcher app on Surface Duo from Play Store, heads to 'system updates' instead

Surface Duo 2 Microsoft Launcher Store
Surface Duo 2 Microsoft Launcher Store (Image credit: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

What you need to know

  • Microsoft Launcher is no longer available via the Play Store for Surface Duo users.
  • Future updates will come through monthly system updates instead.
  • The move suggests Microsoft may be forking the codebase for a more optimized experience on Surface Duo and Surface Duo 2.

Update: Windows Central is hearing that this may have more to do with the Surface team controlling what goes on Surface Duo rather than Launcher getting "forked" for the dual-screen devices. However, we are waiting to confirm this report.

Microsoft Launcher has been on the Google Play Store for a few years now, and with Surface Duo and Surface Duo 2, the company has customized the launcher to fit its dual-screen vision.

Technically, the Microsoft Launcher version on the store for all Android phones and Duo is the exact same app, but certain features are disabled via policy changes for Surface Duo. Users could use the production version or opt-in to the beta variant where some early fixes were pushed out.

But starting in the last week, Microsoft Launcher no longer shows up in the store for Surface Duo and Surface Duo 2 users. Following the hard link, the app states, "this app isn't compatible with your device anymore." Additionally, beta users are advised to "uninstall and reinstall this app."

Most people chalked this up to typical Microsoft errors. Surface Duo owners blamed compatibility issues with the new device, while Surface Duo 2 owners were left scratching their heads.

We reached out to Microsoft's Vishnu Nath, Partner Director PM Microsoft Mobile and X-Device, who works on Launcher, for clarification:

While a rather terse explanation, it does confirm that this is deliberate and not some Play Store error. From now on, Surface Duo and Surface Duo 2 owners should expect Microsoft Launcher updates via system updates similar to the one pushed last week for Surface Duo 2.

As to why Microsoft is doing this, two theories come to mind:

  1. Microsoft wants tighter control over Microsoft Launcher for Surface Duo
  2. Microsoft Launcher may soon be going in a very different direction with new code that requires a different delivery method

Of those two explanations, number 2 is the most interesting. Our Surface Duo 2 review remarked that Microsoft Launcher had been effectively stagnating for most of its life on Surface Duo with only modest bug fixes but no new features. While the pre-installed version on Surface Duo 2 is ahead of the public version, there's not much new in it save for some updated graphics for the feed area.

Since Surface Duo is a journey for Microsoft, it makes sense that Microsoft Launcher may soon fork the codebase as it heads into Android 11 (and perhaps even the just-announced Android 12L) territories. If Microsoft Launcher becomes, at its core, different from the regular Android version, using the current "single app" method may no longer be viable.

Of course, none of this is confirmed by Microsoft, so we'll continue digging.

During Surface Duo 2 briefings, Microsoft did confirm to Windows Central that it is exploring more customization options for its foldable phones, hinting we could finally see some more innovation with Microsoft Launcher. Separating the app in the Play Store and tying it to monthly updates could be that first step.

Watch this space.

Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central. He is also the head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft since 2007, when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, laptops, next-gen computing, and watches. He has been reviewing laptops since 2015 and is particularly fond of 2-in-1 convertibles, ARM processors, new form factors, and thin-and-light PCs. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics, watched people sleep (for medical purposes!), and ran the projectors at movie theaters because it was fun.