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Samsung is beating Microsoft in the battle to turn a phone into a PC

Samsung is beating Microsoft in the battle to turn a phone into a PC


DeX vs. Continuum

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Samsung unveiled its new Desktop Experience (DeX) during its Galaxy S8 launch in New York City yesterday. It’s designed to turn a Galaxy S8 into a PC, with Android apps running in a desktop-like environment. To work well, it will ultimately require apps to support larger displays. But out of the gate Samsung’s DeX already overshadows Microsoft’s Continuum.

Microsoft first unveiled its Continuum feature, to turn a phone into a PC-like interface, nearly two years ago at its Build developers conference. At first it felt like the future, but after two years of little progress it has very much stalled. During my recent experience with Continuum, I was surprised that Microsoft still hasn’t enabled basic windowing for apps or a feature to at least let two run side-by-side.

Samsung DeX on the Galaxy S8
Samsung DeX on the Galaxy S8

Continuum has failed to progress so far

Continuum has also failed to progress because very few applications on Windows 10 Mobile support it. App developers have to specifically build support for Continuum, and most haven’t bothered. DeX on the other hand will support regular Android apps out of the box, and even companies like Adobe and Microsoft have worked with Samsung directly to optimize their apps for larger displays. That means that Word, Excel, and PowerPoint will all run just as well on DeX as they would on Continuum. Microsoft Office integration is a key selling point for Continuum, and Samsung now has that exact selling point with Microsoft’s help.

One of the big advantages DeX has over Continuum is fairly basic. Samsung has implemented its own windowing system in parallel to the one found in Android Nougat. That means you can actually multitask with apps in DeX, unlike Continuum which restricts you to one app on screen at any given time. It’s stunning that Microsoft, the company behind Windows which brought windowed apps to the masses, has still not implemented this basic user interface in Continuum. Samsung even added the ability to unlock the PC-like interface through facial recognition (like Windows Hello) on the Galaxy S8. The angle of the DeX dock means you can simply look at the phone and it will unlock the desktop interface.

Microsoft’s issues aside, DeX isn’t perfect, and will struggle with some of the same problems Continuum does. This isn’t a real desktop experience with powerful desktop apps that you might expect on a Mac or PC, it’s mobile apps stretched out on a bigger screen. You can use a mouse, keyboard, and monitor, but most of these apps won’t have keyboard shortcuts, the ability to drag and drop, or simply the scale to make use of a bigger screen. Samsung does have the advantage of Android behind it, meaning there will be more apps available, and possibly some developer incentives to optimize apps for the desktop experience.

Microsoft Lumia 950
Microsoft's Continuum on the Lumia 950

Desktop apps on ARM could help Microsoft

Microsoft will likely counter this in the future with support for desktop apps on ARM processors, but the software giant is only talking about ARM-powered laptops right now. It’s clear those emulated traditional x86 apps will eventually make their way over to Windows-powered phones, but it all depends on how long Microsoft takes to make this a reality. Windows Phone users spent years waiting for Microsoft to catch up, but the company has practically given up instead.

Outside of Microsoft and Samsung, the one company that could make this phone-as-a-PC experience more of a reality is Google. Apple hasn’t shown interest in turning iPhones or iPads into full PCs just yet, apart from an early patent filing, but there are persistent rumors that Google is merging Chrome OS and Android. All we've seen so far are some rather lackluster Android apps on Chrome OS, but a broader merger could open up the idea of the phone as a PC to millions of Android devices.

Google turning phones into PCs is pure speculation right now, but Samsung and even Microsoft have to first prove that consumers and businesses actually want this. If they do, then of course Google, and perhaps even Apple, will follow Microsoft and Samsung’s early footsteps.