Microsoft’s attempt to reinvent the PC may just become a reality

  • Rajiv Makhni, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Oct 24, 2015 22:51 IST
Game changer: Microsoft’s Continuum allows the phone to be used as a PC. Just dock it to a hardware whenever you require a full screen or a proper big sized keyboard.

How we have understood and used personal computers has followed a very simple trajectory. At one point all anyone had was a big fat CRT monitor that sat on top of a super-thick PC cabinet, which in turn was connected to a very clunky keyboard and a mouse. There were no alternatives.

Eventually, some iterations evolved: the All-in-One (a desktop computer that did away with the separate cabinet CPU), wireless keyboards, a PC on a stick, smaller sizes and even HP’s radical new Sprout.

But the way we use the PC has remained the same for decades. It’s always been a separate device that is more or less non-portable and situated in one part of the house. You go to it when you need a larger screen and keyboard to work on something, or need the horsepower to do something that your phone, tablet or laptop can’t manage very well.

It’s also a bit of a pain. Your files, data and content remain on the PC and need to be accessed and retrieved from there. But, all of that may just change forever.

Out of it?

Microsoft may have bought out Nokia, but it seems to have done very little after. Many thought that MS had given up the ghost and decided to get out of the phone business, considering it just wasn’t getting anywhere. No new phones for a while, very small market share and terrible sales more or less cemented that theory.

But, now it seems that this was the calm before the storm. MS has hit back hard with three radical new phones and a super killer feature: The Continuum!

May the PC be with you

Well, it’s actually called just Continuum. I’ve added the ‘The’ and the ‘!’ to make it sound more dramatic. Also, now it sounds like the name of the next big mind altering sci-fi movie from Christopher Nolan, which is always a good thing.

But theatrics aside, Continuum is a big game-changer in the world of mobiles and PCs. At its heart is a very simple feature. The new device is a phone that can also be used as a PC. Dock it to a new hardware dock (or use Bluetooth and Miracast), and your phone doubles up as a PC. Use it as a normal phone like you do every day, carry it around, and then, when you need it for something that requires a full screen or a proper big-sized keyboard – it’ll morph into a PC within one second.

Tried before

This whole phone-that-becomes-a-PC trick has been tried before. But very unsuccessfully. Motorola did it with the Atrix phone, Asus has done it with its phone-cum-dumb-tablet, and half a dozen other startups have given it a serious shot and crashed and burned just as seriously. The problems have been manifold: a poorly thought-out user experience when the phone does turn into a PC, high prices for docks and hardware that wasn’t ready for a dual life.

Been there, done that: Motorola already tried the PC-to-phone route with the Atrix phone.

Microsoft seems to have nailed it, though. As soon as you dock the phone, it runs a version of Windows 10 that feels completely like its desktop counterpart.

This isn’t just your phone screen being replicated on a bigger display, this is a separate real desktop OS. Everything runs full screen, you can multitask and open different windows and use them as you do on a PC. Your phone continues to behave like one and calls or messages don’t open or show on the desktop unless you want them to.

And from the desktop, you can still manage all PC and phone tasks, including making calls or sending messages. Plus, the hardware seems just right. It has a smooth interface and running of both OSes and displays. Think of the potential when your phone and your PC become one and convert from one to another at the drop of a hat (or dock!).

Where it could go wrong

The problem with radical new thinking and trying to reinvent a new way of working is getting enough people to try it out. Microsoft doesn’t have the chops in the phone market to do it, but it still rules the PC and laptop market. Millions may want to try this out and may just switch if satisfied.

But Microsoft needs to be careful. It needs to have these docks and screens everywhere – at airports, coffee shops, malls, restaurants, railway stations and in the corridors of every building. Docking in shouldn’t require me to carry a dock. It should feel seamless and the obvious thing to do whenever and wherever I want.

Also, the dock itself should be priced at a startup money-burn price. Everyone should be able to have one at home and one at work. Also, Microsoft should have options to make this dock into a dumb laptop and an All-in-One device too.

Reigniting the greatest war ever

The phones (The Lumia 950 and 950XL) are actually very good too. They have some serious hardware and features, including an eye-scan biometric security system. (Reviews later.)

But a larger game is being played here by Microsoft. If it can get people to switch to this way of computing, it will mark the return of Microsoft to the phone market – but with a difference. They may just get actual market share, which isn’t a joke. And they will own the desktop AND the phone business too. Any company that can straddle these can lockdown customers and own the world. That’s exactly Apple’s strategy right now.

Could ‘The Continuum’ reboot and restart the greatest battle in the world of technology? Could it be a Microsoft v/s Apple war all over again? Let’s keep our fingers and our PC wires crossed.

Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3

From HT Brunch, October 25

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