Why Microsoft and Google can never copy Apple's Handoff

Apple's Handoff feature moves tasks seamlessly between mobile and PC, and we may never see anything like it elsewhere

Handoff, which allows tasks started on a given device to be handed off to another device, is one of the most fascinating features in iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite. Users can seamlessly switch from, say, Mac to iPhone, or from iPhone to Apple Watch midtask. InfoWorld's Galen Gruman calls this concept "liquid computing," a process baked deep into iOS 8 and a sign of another step toward a world where the device we use is made less important than the work we're doing.

It's also a concept ripe for cloning, in much the same way many of Apple's other ideas have inspired spinoffs (some might say ripoffs). But could such an idea be implemented outside of Apple's ecosystem?

Microsoft and Google, the two big consumer computing environments apart from Apple, both have pieces in place to allow mobile computing users to seamlessly move their work from one environment to another. But each has only half the equation: Google has mobile, Microsoft has the desktop. For the likes of Handoff to work in such an environment, it would need to completely transcend any one platform.

Google likes to tout that it's already working in this vein. Since Google's entire infrastructure is cloud-based, most anything started on a desktop machine can be resumed on a mobile device and vice versa, since nothing is wholly machine-dependent in the workflow. The downside of this approach is it limits the kinds of work that can be done. Only tasks that fit in the cloud-first environment can be shuttled around os easily, but Google believes most of its target audience can be satisfied with either a mobile app or a Web browser.

One way in which Google plans to expand this is to allow Handoff-type behaviors between Android and Chrome OS devices. The problem with that isn't the mechanism, but the audience. Chrome OS devices are not exactly setting the world on fire, so there are precious few people to make use of such a system in the first place. Plus, most of the people who have an Android phone -- and the kinds of workloads that would benefit from Handoff-style manipulation -- have a Windows-based PC. Maybe Google's work with multiplatform languages like Dart or JavaScript will provide a way out by allowing workflows to be moved between any device that has a compatible runtime, but that's a long-term project.

Then there's Microsoft, which has the desktop -- and a surprising amount of the cloud -- but has struggled long and hard to gain any relevance with mobile. The problem, again, isn't technical. Handing off work between Windows-powered phones and Windows-powered desktops might be doable, especially with the next iteration of Windows allegedly being more unified across the board. But with Windows-powered phones stuck with single-digit market share, there's no discernible market for moving Windows tasks to Windows mobile devices.

What makes Handoff so difficult to copy is that it's the product of a company with a solid presence in both mobile and desktop computing. Microsoft has half the picture; Google and Android, the other half. They could in theory work together, but odds are they'll simply get to work developing rival liquid-computing methodologies that will each leave out half their prospective audiences.

This story, "Why Microsoft and Google can never copy Apple's Handoff," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.