Windows 10 revives the old smartphone-as-PC idea

The portable PC notion was very appealing four years ago, but technology advancements have since passed it by

Windows 10 revives the old smartphone-as-PC idea
Credit: Mark Hachman

Microsoft today let the other shoe drop on Windows 10 -- the mobile shoe. After announcing new Lumia smartphones with features you'd expect in any current smartphone, Microsoft showed off the Continuum feature, which lets a phone be a PC when connected to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

What appeals to me about the Continuum notion is that I could plug my smartphone into someone else's PC setup and have my PC with me. The smartphone is a portable brain that blooms into a PC when connected to the right stuff. It's "just" a smartphone the rest of the time.

That's not a trick you'll see in Android and iOS. Although both can send their screens to a monitor, the user interface and apps don't scale up to be real PC apps; all you get is a blown-up version of the smartphone screen. Continuum makes your smartphone into a portable PC that acts like a regular smartphone when operating by itself.

Continuum uses the Universal apps capability in Windows 10 to enable apps to scale to their current hardware, from smartphone to tablet to PC.

But does that notion actually make sense? In early 2011, I thought it did. At the time, Motorola Mobility had delivered its Atrix 4G smartphone and Lapdock device that together let the Android smartphone become a Firefox terminal on your TV or monitor when you connected a mouse and keyboard into the Lapdock. This way, you had a true full-screen browser experience when at a desk -- and you could run the Android part on your big screen, though only in a scaled-up window.

Despite their promise, the Atrix and Lapdock flopped, and technology advances seem to have made them irrelevant since then. Now Microsoft is trying to revive the idea with Windows 10 and Universal apps, taking it to the full Windows experience.

I liked the idea in 2011, but I'm skeptical in 2015, for two reasons:

First, the apps and functionality available on smartphones today are light-years ahead of what existed in 2011. You can use the full Microsoft Office or Apple iWork on a smartphone today; in fact, there's little you can't do on a smartphone that requires you to use a PC when away from your desk. Smartphones today are way more capable than they were in 2011 -- and we have tablets like the iPad that are becoming laptops in their own right.

Microsoft's other foray into a portable PC, Windows 8's Windows to Go, has gained very little traction in its several years of existence. With Windows to Go, you plug a thumb drive into a PC to make that PC a thin client of the Windows environment stored on that thumb drive. Windows 10's Continuum makes your phone that thumb drive, in a sense.

Second, if you need more screen size and peripheral support when working away from your desk, chances are you have a tablet and/or laptop with you anyhow. The need to make someone else's PC a thin client to your smartphone simply isn't that strong. Although I would love it if my iPhone's apps scaled to Mac dimensions when I streamed my iPhone screen via AirPlay to my TV or monitor, the truth is I would want or need that capability only once in a while.

Continuum is a minor convenience that happens to be cool. But I certainly wouldn't abandon iOS or Android to get it.

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