Just about every smartphone owner has the same thought sooner or later: “I bring my smartphone everywhere, so wouldn’t it be nice if my smartphone could do everything a PC does?”
The idea that you could research and create an entire PowerPoint presentation on your phone, wirelessly project that presentation in a meeting or classroom, then jump online and publish a blog and a YouTube video about that awesome presentation — and without using a bulky desktop or heavy laptop computer — sounds great. In fact, Microsoft is closer than ever to making that idea a reality with Continuum for phones. Unfortunately, that dream is likely to be something of a nightmare for early adopters.
Let’s take a closer look at Continuum and why we’re apprehensive about the idea that a smartphone is the only computer you’ll ever need.
Arguably the most important announcement about Windows 10 phones at the 2015 Microsoft Build Developer Conference was Continuum for phones. The promise that a smartphone running Windows 10 can function like a standard Windows PC has the potential to completely reshape both the smartphone and PC markets. Continuum uses new universal apps that run across Windows 10 on phones, PCs, tablets, and the Xbox One. You can start using the mobile version of Excel on your phone’s 5-inch touchscreen and the app will automatically resize and reconfigure the interface to work with a keyboard and mouse as soon as you connect your phone to a desktop or laptop docking station with a larger screen. One device becomes multiple devices.
Continuum works by connecting your phone to a wired dock or wirelessly connecting to a Miracast display and wireless peripherals like a keyboard and mouse. Microsoft’s developers designed the Continuum interface to scale up to larger displays so your Tile-based apps play nice. Unfortunately, traditional desktop apps aren’t as friendly … and that’s a potential problem for would-be users.
In reality, Continuum feels more like a logical evolution of Windows RT than a true solution for making a smartphone work exactly like a Windows PC because Continuum still relies on new, Tile-friendly apps. Microsoft’s own Continuum-optimized apps all work beautifully as you transition between your smartphone and connect it to a desktop dock and larger screen. You can even use both the smartphone display and a larger external screen simultaneously in a dual-display setup with one app running on one screen (like Netflix) and a completely different app (like PowerPoint or the Microsoft Edge browser) running on the other.
That said, we noticed that some apps have trouble managing two screens at once; you might be working on a larger desktop monitor but an alert message for the app you’re currently using pops up on the phone’s screen (and is easily missed) instead of appearing on the larger screen with that app.
While Windows 10 phones running Continuum look promising, users are still overwhelmingly limited to applications designed to run on ARM-based processors. You can’t install any of the old Windows PC software you currently own, and that means any business with a workforce that needs to run proprietary, legacy Windows-based software probably won’t be able to use that existing software on a Windows 10 phone.
HP claims it may have a solution for those businesses in the form of a soon-to-be-released service and app that allows Windows 10 phones with Continuum to run legacy Windows software via a cloud-based virtual PC, but we haven’t seen a working demo of HP’s solution at the time of this writing.
Continuum Still Requires Bulky, Expensive Extras
There is an obvious problem using a smartphone for everything even if you don’t care about legacy software: The majority of people don’t want to stare at the small screen on a smartphone for hours while they work. That’s why the first batch of Windows phones using Windows 10 Continuum like the Lumia 950, Lumia 950 XL and the upcoming HP Elite X3 are designed to work with desktop docking stations and laptop docks that deliver a more traditional PC experience with a physical keyboard and larger screen.
These docks don’t provide additional processing power or storage; the phone still does all the work. That said, the docking solutions provide a way to connect other peripherals like media card readers, external storage drives, and other devices you may need for work.
On the other hand, we debate whether there is any clear advantage to using a smartphone for everything if you still need a desktop dock or laptop dock (or both) to do your work.
Windows Phones: The Elephant in the Room
Of course, even if Continuum and Microsoft’s native Continuum apps deliver a flawless PC-like experience, none of that will matter unless people switch to Windows phones. Apple iPhones and the many varieties of smartphones running Google’s Android OS currently make up 96.2 percent of the U.S. smartphone market based on the most recent comScore market share reports. That means Windows phone users make up less than 4 percent of all smartphone users along with BlackBerry.
Software developers need to create new apps that run perfectly on Continuum or re-code existing desktop apps to run perfectly on Continuum if businesses and individual consumers are going to rely on a Windows smartphone to do “everything” that a PC does. Developers don’t work for free … and software companies won’t pay developers when their hard work will earn less than 4 percent of the total market.
Microsoft is already pushing Continuum in emerging markets outside the U.S. in the hope that Continuum will convince businesses outside the U.S. to purchase and use Windows smartphones for their mobile employees. But the reality is emerging markets typically follow the trends of established markets, and that means Windows phones aren’t likely to claim much market share. New apps designed for Windows 10 PCs are more likely to offer at least some compatibility with Continuum on phones, but the legacy applications are the ones that will be slow to find a home on a Windows phone.
If Microsoft has any hope of attracting a significant percentage of consumers to Windows phones it will be due to the fact that most popular smartphone apps are platform agnostic. Facebook, YouTube, Google Play, Google Maps, Gmail, Pandora, and Amazon Mobile don’t care what platform you use.
Multiple Devices Are Still the Best Solution … For Now
Regardless of whether Windows 10 phones hit critical mass and whether Continuum succeeds or fails to make a phone work like a Windows PC one thing is certain: There are consumers and businesses that want their smartphones to do everything. More to the point, the latest phones and the latest phone apps are getting better and better about letting you do just about everything you used to do with a PC.
High-end PC gaming, professional editing of high-resolution photos and video content, and work that requires the absolute best in high-speed processing still demand the kind of hardware that is only available in traditional desktop and notebook PCs. But that also means a surprisingly large percentage of smartphone users already can (or soon will) find a way to use their phones and mobile apps to do just about everything else.
The only problem for Microsoft and Windows is that Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS control most of the smartphone market. If Google and Apple continue to develop ways to make their phones and apps replace PCs then the traditional PC market will quickly transform into a business that almost exclusively serves a smaller percentage of customers who demand absolute cutting-edge performance.
In the meantime, a traditional notebook or desktop PC is probably the best solution if your work requires that you use Adobe’s Creative Cloud for editing content, or if you need to spend hours researching, writing, and editing for school or work. Use your smartphone for those quick tasks that don’t require hours of concentration, and keep your eyes open for future solutions that let your smartphone do more.