Microsoft’s Continuum

A Long-Term Industry Vision Arrives

Windows10_background_lContinuum is a feature of Microsoft’s Windows 10 that enables the operating system to quickly transition between a touch and a mouse-and-keyboard experience. The platform adjusts to provide an optimized user interface based on connected hardware accessories. In desktop mode, there’s a start menu, taskbar and floating windows. In tablet mode, all elements of the interface adjust for touch input. It’s the best of both worlds.

Continuum continues to blur the line between hardware types — classifying a device as either a laptop or tablet is no longer so straightforward. At some point, analysts will be forced to group these based on features rather than form.

The facility bridges remaining gaps between the mobile and desktop experience. Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 10 Mobile is a version of the operating system made for small devices, but can scale up given the opportunity. The availability of Universal Windows apps able to run across devices of all types means a smartphone could suddenly look very much like a PC.

At an event this week, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella showed off the capabilities of Continuum running under Windows 10 Mobile. Mr Nadella demonstrated using a Windows-based smartphone tethered to an external Bluetooth keyboard, mouse and display. A full PC experience appeared from a hand-held device.

The ability to use a smartphone in docked mode isn’t a new vision. Industry insiders have anticipated this for more than a decade, but the technology has now come together to support the architecture. Mobile processors are fast enough and memory cheap enough to enable affordable phones capable of providing a real computer experience.

There are long-term ramifications here for several product categories. There’s a clear leapfrogging effect in developing markets where users skip the classic PC altogether. Many countries are already mobile-first, with smartphones the key method of Internet access, and this digs into the market for computers.

However, multidevice ownership could be a problem, with users in many Western countries juggling smartphones, tablets, laptops and game consoles. It’s unclear how much ground a smartphone will be able to cover given future generations of components and user behaviour.

The level of convergence that Continuum enables has been slowly creeping across related consumer electronics industries. The concept has been widely discussed since the days of personal digital assistants, but it’s only now that so many features can be funneled into one product. With well over 1 billion smartphones shipped each year, smartphone volumes dwarf the production numbers of adjacent industries. Replacement cycles of about two years mean that the smartphone market could absorb others rather quickly.

Microsoft has achieved convergence first, but Apple and Google can be expected to offer more form crossover. Smartphones are PCs too, and beginning to act that way.

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