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Peter Bright of Ars Technica did us all a great favor by producing a detailed evaluation of Microsoft’s Lumia 950 Windows phone. I will leave to one side the review of the 950’s phone features, and zoom in on just one capability that Microsoft has debuted: using a new service called Continuum, the 950 can be used as the central module of a PC: you just connect its ‘dock’ to a TV or monitor, and connect to a mouse, touchpad, and/or keypad, and you are running full Windows apps.
As Bright states,
The connections can be wired, wireless, or a mix of the two. Wired connections use a new accessory, the Display Dock. This plugs into the USB type C port on the phone, and it offers three USB ports (which can be used for mice, keyboards, memory sticks, and maybe more) along with full size HDMI and DisplayPort ports for connecting a monitor. For wireless, there’s Bluetooth and Miracast. Either way, the concept is the same: on the big screen, you get a desktop of sorts, and can use this to run Universal Windows Apps. When run in Continuum’s “desktop,” they look and work much the same way that they do in regular desktop Windows 10. Keyboard shortcuts like ctrl-c and ctrl-v work, they contain buttons and other UI elements that are mouse-appropriate rather than finger-sized; it’s pretty neat. You can even alt-tab between running programs.
While connected in this way, the phone continues to run as normal. The big screen has a Start menu, and apps launched from there open on the big screen. The phone’s screen has its own Start menu, and apps launched from that open on the phone. This enables side-by-side multitasking. If you open the Continuum app on the phone, you can use the phone’s screen as a kind of touchpad to control the big screen, including support for two finger scrolling. Similarly, it can act as a keyboard if you don’t have a hardware keyboard available.
Rather than dwell on the specifics of this implementation of these ideas, I’d like to throw a few more conjectures in the hopper: Imagine a tablet/display device based on the premise that you’d be using the computing power of your smartphone rather than an additional motherboard in the display. After all, your smartphone is the device closest to you: the one you always have nearby. So these two devices can be easily configured so that the phone usings the display with a single button push. The phone display converts to a touchpad, and the display cover doubles as a keyboard under the control of the phone.
This configuration supports PC mode. But another configuration would allow the display to act as a touch sensitive tablet, and again, relying on the computing horsepower of the phone.
So, I predict that in the near future, we will see systems like this emerging from other vendors. I’m hoping for something from Apple like this.
One problem is that vendors would like us to buy multiple devices, in principle. However, a Continuum-inspired future is coming.
Imagine going to work with your phone, and display/keyboard. You take an available desk, and connect to the 34″ Dell curved ultrawide monitor there, putting your phone into Mac OS X mode, and also available as touchpad. Your files are all accessible via Google Drive, and your keyboard is the cover of the tablet/display, which you configure to act as a second monitor. Later in the day you head out for a business trip, and a few hours later, when you get to the hotel you set up a similar configuration using the monitor on the desk there. Later, you head for bed, putting the phone on the nightstand, and running the display in iOS mode, catching up on the news in Flipboard.
This is just over the horizon, I bet.
Paradoxically, getting tablets to work this way with phones will sell more of them, although they will cost less.
Note also that Microsoft is the first to get close to a universal OS for PC and phone. Apple’s division between OS X and iOS and Google’s split between Chrome and Android are starting to look like a mess waiting to be cleaned up, not a foundational law of the universe.