Microsoft is bringing a full version of Windows 10, complete with desktop app support, to ARM chipsets. The software giant demonstrated Windows 10 running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 chip today, complete with HD video playback, Adobe Photoshop support, and Microsoft Office. Microsoft expects ARM-based laptops to be the first to adopt this new version of Windows 10. Traditional x86 desktop apps will be emulated, making the experience seamless to the end user. Laptops might be the first, but it’s easy to see past that and realize that this means Microsoft is about to turn a phone into a real PC.
Microsoft surprised everyone with Continuum for phones last year, a feature of Windows 10 that lets phones turn into a PC. Continuum makes use of Qualcomm chipsets and Windows 10’s new universal apps to scale from a phone screen up to a monitor and includes features that make it feel like a full-blown PC. While it might look like a PC, you can’t currently run apps like Chrome or Photoshop, and it’s reliant on developers creating universal apps. Microsoft is making Continuum a lot more powerful next year, thanks to desktop apps.
I’ve used Continuum many times, but its lack of apps mean I always end up switching back to a real PC if I need to do anything more than basic web browsing or Word documents. It feels like a gimmick right now, but a suite of desktop apps that I’m used to using could make it a lot more appealing. There have been persistent rumors that Microsoft was working on an Intel-powered Surface Phone, but Intel’s cancelation of its Atom processors put those rumors to rest. It now seems likely that any Surface phone or mini tablet that Microsoft may create will have an ARM chipset and the emulated desktop apps required to turn it into a PC.
Turning a phone into a PC is something that the industry has explored before. Motorola attempted it with the Atrix, Asus created a variety of PadFones, and Canonical has experimented with Ubuntu phones turning into PCs, but Microsoft’s dominance in PCs means it’s the only company likely to pull it off at scale. Microsoft isn’t discussing its exact mobile plans for Continuum with desktop apps, but the company is ready to support ARM processors for devices with small screens, large screens, and no screens at all.
Microsoft has spent most of 2016 walking back its mobile efforts, after admitting it wasn’t the company’s focus. The software giant gutted its phone business earlier this year, and Windows Phone’s market share has plummeted. Microsoft has refused to walk away from Windows Phone totally, and it’s clear this ARM effort is the reason why.
The challenge Microsoft now faces if it truly wants to spark interest in Windows-powered phones again is that they still need to be primarily a good mobile phone with apps and a vibrant ecosystem. Emulation has its draw backs for performance, and turning a phone into a PC is a great technical achievement, but no matter how good that PC experience is the mobile side will always let the dream down. It’s a challenge that the entire industry will need to face as devices continue to converge.
Apple has iOS apps on the iPad Pro and not the full powerful desktop apps that most professionals need, and it has to rely on Adobe and other developers to invest time and effort into rebuilding those apps. Likewise, Google has Android apps that don’t work well as desktop equivalents, and there are persistent rumors that Chrome OS and Android will merge to meet this challenge. Microsoft is well positioned to meet the desktop needs of these mobile devices, but without the mobile support it won’t be the device that millions will want in their pocket.
Microsoft has shown recently that it’s willing to invest into niche areas (like the Surface Studio) and appeal to communities of creators to secure its dominance of the PC side of computing. Turning a phone into a PC is just another part of that, even if it only appeals to Windows fans and business customers. That sizable audience might be enough to keep Microsoft’s mobile efforts alive until the next big shift in computing. That next shift increasingly looks like mixed reality computing from Microsoft’s perspective, and the company is keen to enable its traditional PC partners to build VR and mixed reality headsets that support its vision for computing beyond the smartphone. Until then, expect Microsoft to keep trying to turn your phone into a real PC.