Introduction and redefining the phone
Phones have had a renaissance over the past half-decade. Gone is the idea that they are used simply for calls and texting, replaced by an all-capable device that can run apps, surf the internet, video call and more.
Led by the iPhone in 2007, touchscreen technology and software improvements have meant that phones no longer need a keyboard and can have a large screen and a high pixel density. Other manufacturers, from HTC to Samsung, have added their own take on what makes a "smartphone," redefining the market in the process.
Now, it seems that it's Microsoft's turn. After years of relative obscurity in the world of smartphones – Windows Phone, despite having some good ideas and positive reviews has never been a commercial success – Redmond has decided to take a different tack, incorporating its weakest asset into the biggest: Windows Phone has now become Windows.
Redefining the smartphone
Previously, Windows Phone was similar in design ideas to Windows 8 but was never actually one and the same thing. There was always the promise on the horizon that the two would merge and apps created for one would work on the other (an idea that I argued would not shift the fortunes of Windows Phone), but with Windows 10 for Phones Microsoft has gone further and could, if the implementation is right, redefine how we see phones.
The implementation is, with hindsight, blindingly obvious: all you need is an HDMI connection, a keyboard and a mouse and your phone transforms into a computer. Windows 10 powers the experience and it's cohesive across all platforms, with apps being useable across them all. Working in Office on your phone plugged into a monitor is exactly the same as it would be if you were using a desktop, meaning that serious work can be done on a phone.
There are, of course, caveats that may prevent this from being an immediate success. Microsoft has stated that "new hardware" is needed to enable this feature and no current phone that is eligible for a Windows 10 update complies. Shifting hardware is a mixed bag where Microsoft is concerned with certain ventures, such as the Surface models, gaining relative success. The acquisition of Nokia makes far more sense in this light, despite the fact that it's losing money annually, as the company now has a foothold in the PC market. They would, as Steve Jobs liked to say, own the "whole widget".
Whether the need to upgrade to get Continuum will alienate current Windows Phone users remains to be seen, as does the problem of whether the feature is enough to warrant the purchase of a phone. Microsoft's suggested use case of new phone buyers mainly applies within developing nations, many of whom do not have £600 (or $600) to spend on a handset, even if it does rule out the need to buy a PC.
These niggles aside, if Microsoft can make this work the firm will be in a position that few others are in: they will have cracked the smartphone/PC divide, streamlining the experience and reaping the rewards.
Pushing the envelope
Continuum has the potential to not only redefine how people see smartphones but also computers. Compared to flying cars having a phone/PC hybrid is unexciting, but it is transformative nonetheless. If people stop seeing desktops and laptops as necessary, then Microsoft is in the perfect position within a market that is incredibly fertile.
Desktop sales, according to IDC estimates, are falling substantially year-over-year while smartphone sales continue to set records, even at the expensive $500-plus price point, showing that finally Microsoft has its eyes firmly set on the future and what that may bring.
There will be use cases that don't work on a smartphone, and of course companies have tried this before. Motorola had a project that allowed a similar thing to happen, except via hardware that included an HDMI port and various USB ports. Due to advancements in Bluetooth technology, coupled with the expansion of online services such as Google Drive or Dropbox, there is less impetus to include USB ports.
It's arguable that all a laptop needs is a single charging port, an idea that Apple is currently exploring, and a phone complies with this potentially new norm. Motorola made the mistake of requiring actual new hardware whereas Microsoft is tapping into things people already have – a monitor with HDMI, a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse.
Only Microsoft knows how many people will actually 'switch' their phone into a PC but the potential impact upon how we define a "smartphone" and how we define a "PC" could be extraordinary if it catches on.
There have been various reasons why people have shunned Windows Phone, from apps to the interface – but being able to use the device as a PC, thus meaning that you don't need a PC, is a compelling reason to go Windows with your handset that no other manufacturer can boast. Even Apple, which has made a big show of its Continuity feature, cannot say that if you plug an iPhone into an HDMI port, attach a keyboard and mouse via Bluetooth and boot it up, that the handset will become a fully-fledged PC.
A new era?
It hasn't been often over the past decade or so that Microsoft has really pushed the envelope within the consumer space. Windows, of course, is still used by millions of people but embarrassing implementations, such as Vista, have marred its reputation and alienated a lot of users. Backtracking on various Windows 8 features – or, you could argue, including them in the first place – has also done nothing to improve Redmond's relationship with its actual users.
It's now an oft-beaten drum, but Satya Nadella's Microsoft appears to be far more open to ideas and this is largely reflected within Windows 10. Opening up the software to users ahead of time is an unprecedented move and the feedback is actually being worked upon and incorporated.
This will mean less blind mistakes as a company and, on top of innovations such as Continuum, could lead Microsoft into first place and redefine how we, as users, define a "smartphone" and a "computer".