There was a lot to chew on during the keynote yesterday at Microsoft’s Build conference in San Francisco. The company announced plans to let developers use code written for iOS and Android apps in Windows programs. It showed off new uses for its HoloLens augmented-reality headset, such as teaching anatomy with life-size, interactive human bodies. It finally revealed that the new browser that will displace Internet Explorer will be known as Microsoft Edge.
But the single bit of keynote which spoke most directly to my brain and heart was Microsoft mobile honcho Joe Belfiore’s demonstration of a Windows 10 feature known as Continuum. It let him use a Windows phone with a big display, a keyboard, and a mouse–effectively turning it into a conventional Windows PC.
Belfiore began his demo by explaining that Windows phones that support this feature don’t actually exist yet, so he would be simulating the experience. That’s okay. I’ve been craving something along these lines for years: Here’s a piece I wrote about the idea back in 2009. I can surely wait a little longer.
Continuum isn’t the industry’s first pass at turning a phone into a PC. In January 2011, Motorola made a splash at the CES conference with a phone called the Atrix. It offered an optional $500 dock that was basically a laptop with no brains. You plugged the Atrix into a slot on the back, whereupon you could run Firefox and other apps on the dock’s 11.6″ screen, using software which Moto called Webtop.
I loved, loved, loved the idea. The reality, however, was not a big whoop. The dock sold for $500–the price of a midrange Windows notebook–and the Atrix’s wheezy performance and cumbersome software didn’t make for a PC-like experience. Motorola fiddled with the Webtop idea only into late 2012 before giving up. I paused to mourn its loss, but only briefly.
Motorola’s Webtop was about turning a phone into a laptop. In Belfiore’s Build keynote at least, Continuum served to turn a Windows phone into a desktop computer, which allows it to sidestep some of the challenges that Moto never quite resolved. But I’m hopeful that Microsoft is onto something that might be more practical.
Phones are more potent now. They should stand a better shot at running PC-like apps at high resolutions at an acceptable clip.
Windows is Windows. One of the most important messages at Build has been that there aren’t multiple versions of Windows for different devices: There’s just Windows 10 running on an array of gadgets, and knowing how to deal with displays of varying devices. The interface should scale up appropriately for the larger display, and you’ll be able to run meaty, familiar PC apps such as Microsoft Office. That’s radically different than the situation with Motorola’s Webtop, which felt like a phone struggling to pass as a computer and not quite succeeding.
This isn’t proprietary. To buy into Motorola’s vision, you had to buy a $500 piece of hardware that became a doorstop the moment you decided to switch to a phone rather than the Atrix. But Continuum uses Bluetooth and HDMI, allowing it to work with off-the-shelf keyboards, mice, and keyboards.
A lot has changed since I wrote that 2009 post fantasizing about using a smartphone like a computer. For one thing, both PCs and phones have off-loaded far more of their smarts and data into the cloud. It’s far more possible to switch between a phone and a PC–and a tablet, if you wish–and have your apps, content, and settings follow you around as if you were only using one device.
For another, smartphone screens have only gotten bigger. Phablets have gone well beyond five inches–bigger than the screen on the original portable computer–giving people who want to use a powerful phone like a PC the ability to do so without futzing with external add-ons. In fact, if we want to dump that ugly term “phablet” for something better–and we should–we might just call them “pocket computers.” Which would give us a pretty familiar acronym to call them by.
I’m still happy that Microsoft is reviving the phone-as-PC concept. When I get my hands on a Windows phone with this capability, I’ll set up a display, keyboard, and mouse at work, and see if I can be productive. If I can, cool–and if not, I’ll cheerfully acknowledge that technology ended up taking a different path than the one I was hoping for a half decade ago.