The Internet in Your Pocket, Pt. II: Windows Everywhere

Panos Panay's thesis in his excellent recent introduction of the Surface Pro 3, if I am not mistaken, was fundamentally an argument for a device that can replace most PCs and tablets for most people, broadly unifying two common user experiences. On Windows Weekly and elsewhere, his (and by extension, Microsoft's) claim that the SP3 was eminently "lappable" were questioned, and criticized. Crucially, it was also pointed out that for a great many PC users (as it has been re: the first two Surface lines) that using a PC in one's lap is actually a very uncommon, or even nonexistent use case. I, for example, fall into this category myself. I do not own a modern laptop. When I did, I did not use it in my lap. As such, I find what the Surface line has to offer purely from the perspective of form factor to be very appealing.

What is sometimes lost in the tumble about points such as this (this is also true of many/most discussions about the iPad's suitability for "real work") is the simple fact that not everyone uses their devices the same ways. We know it intellectually, but any time someone asks for a recommendation, so many of us seem utterly unable to internalize it. Panay himself, in his SP3 presentation, even eschewed this basic truth in his criticism of the age-old (and very valuable) salesperson's question, "What do you want to do?" Due perhaps to human psychology, there is a nearly endless temptation to seeing computing form factors as universally prescriptive. Vocal end users can't seem to stop questioning why a product exists if it doesn't meet their particular set of needs.

What I'm getting at with this preamble is this: I have another computing, one which I have often seen laid out in part by others here and elsewhere (and I'd be happy for anyone to link to such ideas here; I don't claim any kind of ownership of this concept), one that I think could prove incredibly useful for a great many users, but by no means do I think it's preferable or even suitable for everyone. I also think it could be another major step in the way millions of people use computers in their daily lives, just the way the iPhone was in 2007, in case the title reference was lost on anyone.

What I envision, put simply, is a device, enabled by the latest in mobile technology (and perhaps moreso by that of the very near future), that would be targeted at users who only want to own a single primary computing device at any given time, period. It's inspired greatly by my experience owning the Dell Venue 8 Pro, a remarkable "mini tablet" with some serious limitations that nonetheless convinces me that we _already have_ the engineering capability to unify the smartphone, tablet, and traditional PC into a single device for a great many users. It is also inspired, to a lesser degree, by the Asus 'Padfone' line of products, which, while ambitious, I'm sad to say are a great deal more flawed in their attempt at a similar use case.

Beginning with the device itself, additional use cases would be filled by an accessory ecosystem that radiates outward from the central product. But enough exposition. It's time to lay out some specifics for what I think would be the ideal 'public beta' version of this form factor, a first device to demonstrate its plausibility. I have attempted to be rigorously practical in plotting out this first device, sticking as much as possible to the current limitations of our technology, rather than engaging in wishful thinking, or imagining my own ideal, perfect-world design.

It begins with a 6.3", 12mm thick "mini tablet/phablet" device. It uses the latest Intel Atom quad-core CPU. It has 4GB of memory, 128GB of storage space, two mics, an earpiece, front and rear-facing cameras, and radios for WiFi, Bluetooth LE, and LTE. It has roughly a 5500 mAh battery, and a MicroSD card slot. It has a 1080p multi-touch display, and an active digitizer for pen-based note taking, a la the Surface Pros. The unit would cost $799, or $349 on a cellular contract.

My sole forays into wishful thinking that would greatly aid in making this device possible are as follows:

1. Microsoft would need to release the touch-optimized version of Office, ideally along with a special 'Office 365 Mobile' discounted package that gave the user a single license each for Office desktop and touch, along with, say, a terabyte of OneDrive storage, for $10 a month or less, perhaps solely available for users who own this device in particular.

2. Microsoft (ideally, through a new industry consortium), would need to design a new connector, a la Apple's Lightning, that was durable, thin, and compact, and worked with MHL and USB host (most crucially with USB 3.0) simultaneously.

3. Microsoft would need to make some changes to the way Windows 8 works to maximize the benefits of the new form factor.


As is now obvious, the device would run Windows 8. On its own, however, it would function solely in 'Metro mode.' The desktop simply isn't sensible at that low a screen size, and toggling between modes while at that screen size would confound end users. Perhaps for the truly brave, MS could bury an option in settings to enable desktop mode without any peripherals attached, but it would be best to hide this from most people.

This is where it gets interesting. The standard, day-one accessory for the device would be a vertical dock. It would have ports for Ethernet, USB 3.0, HDMI, and Thunderbolt. Additionally, for those who didn't wish to 'roll their own,' there would be a version that was integrated into a touch-based monitor with all the above ports minus HDMI, plus a few extra USB ports.

As I mentioned previously, Windows would need to change. For one, MS would need to create an API for desktop and Metro apps to have shared sessions, meaning each version would know which file, webpage, etc, the user was last working on across both versions of the app. They would also need to finally create a version of the Windows Store specifically for the desktop, and desktop apps. Additionally, by default, these 'linked' apps available for both metro and the desktop, would install on both sides by default if both were available.

Once in docked mode, the UI would switch automatically into the desktop by default. If an app with a desktop counterpart, like IE or Office, was open previously in Metro, it would launch automatically on the desktop side with whatever had been open previously. When the device was removed form the dock, the reverse would occur. These features, I think, would encourage reluctant developers to take another look at the Windows Store. It would also make Windows 8 far more predictable and comprehensible when it comes to switching between the two environments.

The benefit of this basic system would be manifold: users would have all their files with them at all times. There would be no switching between machines and worrying about syncing processes. There would be no emailing files to yourself to retrieve them on your phone because you couldn't figure out where to download some app, or locate the right kind of USB cable when you needed it. You'd just have everything with you all the time. If you added in whole-machine OneDrive image backup, you could even maintain the famously cool 'Restore your iPad from a previous backup' feature, but extend it to everything on your entire main PC, eliminating the headache of device upgrades into the bargain.

At the beginning of this diatribe, I talked about how not every device is for every person. The same is certainly true of this one. Some people need, as Steve Jobs famously said, "trucks." Some people need way more power than even the latest Intel Atom could provide. And that's fine. But I think this has the potential to greatly simplify the computing lives of a great many users.

It's also quite important to point out that there's another need this device doesn't meet as I propose it, and that's typing large amounts of text on the go. I have several possible ideas in mind for that, including portable keyboard like Microsoft's (IMO) excellent Wedge Mobile Keyboard, or keyboard cases like many available for tablets today. Perhaps even something like Motorola's WebTop docking stations could play a role down the line. This is admittedly an incomplete vision, but I want to get more ideas like this out there. I think device convergence is a crucial part of the future of this industry, and I'd really like to see more of it happen.

Thanks for bearing with me.