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:

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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, 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 for some reason, watches. 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.

  • I think this is good news and hopefully this means more feature updates with deeper system integration. This is how my OnePlus gets updated (gets updated via system update, but they still do very minor updates via the Store). Well used to anyway since they suck with updates now unless you're on the latest gen devices lol.
  • Kind of figured this. My launcher changed Monday without notice. Had to reset my apps onscreen.
  • For Duo 1 as well?
  • Yes, for Duo 1 as well.
  • This is an interesting approach, and yeah maybe deeper integration is coming. Though other OEMs like Samsung still update their home launcher through their own Store though. Maybe Galaxy Store has its own delivery method that has deeper access to One UI. The most important thing is they really need to push more features to the Surface Duo Launcher as it lagged behind so much from the regular Microsoft Launcher. Most people don't care what is the delivery method as long as they can update it quickly enough to reach feature parity with Microsoft Launcher, and then they can slow down since there is nothing to catch up.
  • Bring back Cortana and make it the default assistant. One can only dream.
  • Lol that's long gone
  • Clippy seems more likely.
  • Maybe we get "Weapon"
  • "If you like that kinda thing"
  • "controlling what goes on Surface Duo"... Daniel, what do you mean by this?
  • Either way, I hope the Duo line comes to a horrible end.
  • That's not a very constructive comment. Why bash what your friends here at Windows Central enjoy using? I love my Duo and hope it prospers. I hope the devices you enjoy using also continue to be supported over time.
  • What kind of idiotic comment is that? How in the world is Duo's existence affecting your life?
  • Does MS never learn? Gee, can anyone think of another case in the past decade when there was a big push to integrate smartphone apps deep within the operating system? How did that work out? I predict this will only be bad for the Duo 2. Best we hope for is MS to quickly realize their mistake and undo it.
  • this makes me want to put the breaks on for buying my duo 2 . i just did a trade in and saw this move makes me really scared since (i get the duo 2 Saturday at best buy ) . the launcher is still called Microsoft launcher in the duo. so having it removed in the playstore with the same name it doesn't make sense if it was 2 different apps this would make sense but they are the same app with the same name. this causes the playstore to see the app and say its outdated and then you cant update it. making you feel like you're getting even more out dated. its like this with android being on an old version then seeing this happen to the launcher makes me want to not get my duo 2