Why Microsoft Still has a Strong Mobile Strategy

The title of this article seems absurd on the surface, especially since Microsoft just announced last October that Windows 10 Mobile will be discontinued. In addition to announcing they will be discontinuing Windows 10 Mobile, they announced they will not be making any devices for Windows 10 Mobile. And also, it is very clear that Microsoft has failed to capture market share on phone devices. Then how can Microsoft have a strong mobile strategy?

Microsoft has a strong mobile strategy based on their current and future road map of their Windows 10 operating system and application development technologies. This article will make a case that Microsoft has a strategy to converge the form factors of desktop, laptop, tablet, and phone into a single version of Windows 10, and that this positions them for a strong, long term future with mobile.

We should first review the general trends in computing to get some sense of where the future of computing is headed. The computing power of smartphones in the ten years they have been around has increased dramatically, all the while maintaining a pocketable form factor. The specifications of current flagship smartphones read like that of a laptop computer. Smartphones now have multi-core, high clock rate CPUs, and a lot of RAM. The Samsung A8 sports 6GB of RAM. The OnePlus 5 sports 8GB of RAM. Even though they have specifications like a laptop, are current smartphones as powerful as a laptop? Over the years, PCs have prioritized shear computing power without really constraining their power supply. Phones on the other hand, have put energy consumption as an important priority. When one limits the amount of energy a CPU can consume, that will impact how much computing power it can produce.

To try to answer the question if current flagship phones are approaching the power of a laptop, I downloaded from the Microsoft Store the AnTuTu benchmarking tool. AnTuTu is a respected benchmarking tool originally used for Android devices. It is now ported to iOS and Windows 10. AnTuTu is a native implementation for Android (as opposed to Java virtual machine implementation). I would assume it is a native implementation on iOS. In Windows 10 though, if developed in C#, it would be similar in performance to a Java virtual machine implementation. So, though AnTuTu is ported to these platforms, you cannot be sure computing power is compared equitably because of the unknown differences in the final native execution of the benchmarking tests. The benchmarking results have to be used to just broadly compare performance between different platforms and hardware.

If you look at the AnTuTu’s web site, the iPhone 8 Plus gets a total score of 217,385 (October 2017 results). The OnePlus 5 get a score of 181,047. The Samsung Note 8 get a score of 178,079. Running the benchmarking tool on my Windows 10,  Intel i3 computer with 6GB of RAM and Intel integrated graphics, I got a score of about 151,000. This is a six-year-old laptop mind you. Running it on my Windows 10, Intel i5 with 8GB of Ram and Intel integrated graphics, I got a score of about 192,000. This is a four-year-old laptop. Running on my son’s Windows 10, Intel i7 with 8GB of RAM, solid state drive, and Intel integrated graphics, I got a score of about 275,000.

As you can see, current flagship phones are getting pretty impressive benchmark scores when compared to an older laptop. These phones still have some ways to catch up when comparing to current day laptops. I suspect PCs with a dedicated graphics card would get even higher scores. None the less, this little comparison shows that a phone could be used for the processing duties typically used on a PC.

Not only have phones been getting more powerful, time using a phone as compared to time using a PC has increased dramatically. This has led to higher and higher expectations from phone apps. People are no longer expecting watered down phone apps, but apps with complete feature sets so most workflow scenarios can be carried out on the phone.

So now with powerful phones and powerful apps, there is one problem that phones have. Phones are too small. The phone form factor is its current limitation on what you can productively do on a phone. Without a full keyboard and reasonably sized screen, it doesn’t matter how powerful a phone is or how powerfully designed the apps are; you still are limited by the form factor. It becomes too awkward to have to zoom and pan documents, keep switching web pages and/or apps, and to type with your thumbs.

This is where Microsoft, Apple, and Google seem to agree that what needs to happen is convergence between the various form factors present today. That is, there needs to be some form of convergence between desktops, laptops, tablets, and phones. Convergence will allow continuity between phone apps and their operating systems with that of larger form factors typically found on desktops and laptops.

So now I’d like to talk about Microsoft’s strategy on this convergence and why I believe Microsoft is considerably ahead in this effort. Windows 10 Mobile may be on its sunset, but that doesn’t really matter. Microsoft is building Windows 10 in a way they don’t need a specific mobile version of Windows 10 to run on a small device like a phone. They have to retire Windows 10 Mobile because it is not cost effective to maintain if it no long has any distinguishing features from the upcoming Windows 10.

Microsoft has been working on this convergence since at least Windows 8. They managed to get Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile to share what they called at that time OneCore. They also got a type of monitor connection called Continuum that allows a Windows 10 Mobile phone to give a desktop like experience when connected to a larger monitor, keyboard, and mouse. HP sold a phone called the Elite X3 that really took to spirit how Windows 10 Mobile could be used like a desktop with the Continuum feature. The Elite X3 had a docking station to hook up to a large monitor, keyboard, and mouse. The Elite X3 also had what they called a lapdock. This is something that looks just like a laptop, but only has display and power. It has no computing capability or storage. When you hooked up the Elite X3 to either the docking station or lapdock, Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps scale appropriately for the given monitor size. It does not look like just a phone app enlarged. I have a Lumia 950 Windows 10 Mobile phone that also has this Continuum capability. When you launch a UWP app on a larger monitor, it is very hard to tell you are not on regular Windows 10.

There are differences though between Windows 10 Mobile Continuum and the PC experience on Windows 10. For one, windows are not resizable with Continuum. The app window will fill an entire monitor. It seemed appropriate then to keep adding feature improvements to Continuum to bring it closer to a true desktop experience, but this would not be cost effective given Microsoft’s long-term plans.

Microsoft is working on a new Composable Shell (CShell). A shell control things like the start button, start tiles, taskbar, and window title bar with minimize, restore, and close controls. In other words, it is the binding UI framework that allows you to interact with Windows 10 and its programs. Windows 10 currently has a shell for desktop and tablet. Windows 10 Mobile also has a shell optimized for a phone size screen, touch interface, and the standard Windows 10 Mobile phone buttons. With the new CShell, it will be possible for a single device to take on multiple shells forms. Depending on the context of the display and input devices, Windows 10 with the new CShell will be able to be phone like on a small device, and PC like on a larger form factor. This is why they don’t need Windows 10 Mobile going forward. Windows 10 will be able to be phone like without the need for a separate mobile edition of Windows.

Microsoft has also just recently launched Windows 10 on ARM. ARM is the CPU architecture that nearly all phones run on. Windows 10 on ARM can run on the latest Qualcomm CPU and allows you to run older Win32 style applications. It allows you to run Win32 style applications using emulation similar to how x64 Windows can run x86 programs with the WOW architecture. Windows 10 on ARM also does not loose it connectivity when put to “sleep” (sleep is in quotes because I’m not sure if Windows 10 on ARM even calls it that). These laptops have continuous cellular connectivity through the Qualcomm cellular modem. So the “sleep” on the Windows 10 on ARM laptops is more like when you lock a phone; a lot of stuff is suspended, but connectivity stays up so communications can continue to arrive.

If you really think about all the building blocks Microsoft has, and the fact that todays phones are almost as powerful as a laptop, they are not far from being able to make a pocketable PC that is also a phone. If you take a Windows 10 on ARM laptop, add a telephony stack, add the new CShell, and then shrink it down to the size of a phone, you basically have a pocketable PC that is also a phone. They already know how to put a telephony stack on an ARM platform (e.g. what was already done on Windows 10 Mobile). The new CShell is the missing piece. To be fair though, it is a bit more complicated than that. Windows 10 still ships with a lot of accessory applications that use the older Win32 style of application. An example of this is File Explorer. Microsoft is working to port these accessory applications to Universal Windows Platform (UWP, to be explained in more detail further down). Having these accessory applications as UWP will complete the experience so they can be used on a small form factor.

What is not clear though is if such a pocketable PC is going to be able to run Win32 applications. This is where Microsoft is working on this thing called Windows Core OS. This will essentially modularize Windows 10 so that OEMs can pick and choose what modules they add to the deployed OS. On future devices with Windows 10, using the new Windows Core OS, the OEM can choose to not include Win32 support. The main reason to omit Win32 would be the resource demands Win32 support requires. For starters, Win32 support requires more storage space to install the OS. Also, Win32 support may not be as energy efficient given many scheduled tasks and services required of Win32. So there could be pocketable PCs that can run older Win32 application, and there could some that do not.

Microsoft has also a new development standard they introduced in 2015. It is called Universal Windows Platform (UWP). This development standard is modernized over the 20 some year old Win32 application standard. UWP is designed to write once, and deploy on many different form factors and device types. UWP apps can target Windows 10, Windows 10 Mobile, HoloLens, Xbox, IoT, and Surface Hub. UWP apps are more secure than Win32 applications, and have better transparency on the resources they are consuming. UWP apps also have better permission control for granting access to hardware resources such as sensors, and data such as contacts.

Unfortunately, there is the perception that UWP is just for mobile. This is very far from the truth. Microsoft is fully committed to UWP. The plan is to gradually retire Win32 and transition to UWP. New features are not being added to Win32. New features like inking and mapping are only being added to UWP. When Microsoft announced they were retiring Windows 10 Mobile, several companies soon there after announced they would be retiring their UWP apps. The reasoning being if there is no more Windows 10 Mobile, then why support their UWP app. UWP apps also run great on the desktop provided the app designer considered the desktop form factor in the UI design. I use many UWP apps on my laptop such as Edge, Mail, Calendar, People, Calculator, Maps, Sygic, AccuWeather, Sling, and Netflix, to name a few. I’m finding the UWP experience on the laptop form factor to be better than the equivalent web app. They load fast and interact fast. They also can run in the background to forward notifications and down load communications. And they are better to run on a laptop than a phone because the screen is bigger, and you have a full keyboard. In fact, since the UWP app on my Lumia 950 phone is essentially the same as the app on my laptop, the cognitive learning curve and usability is identical between the phone and laptop. I do not prefer a form factor just because I know how to use the program on that form factor better. They are identical. I pick a form factor to do something more on what is easier to use by nature of the form factor, and what form factor is currently accessible. If both the laptop and phone are both accessible (like when I’m home), I’m finding I am using the laptop form factor just because it is more productive on the larger screen and full keyboard. This is what starts to happen when the forces of platform convergence take shape. You don’t pick a platform just because that is where you have the app installed for a particular task. You pick a platform based on the most productive and accessible form factor. When a pocketable PC is available, and you have it connected to a lapdock or larger monitor, you will be able to do PC AND phone like tasks all in one experience. For example, you will be able to comfortably work on a document, AND text someone with SMS, or take a phone call. So app developers, please don’t think of UWP for just phone development. With the capabilities of convergence upon us, you have to think of UWP apps being used on multiple form factors; small and large.

So, is convergence really upon us? Microsoft is allegedly working on Project Andromeda, which has been associated with a Surface branded phone. Project Andromeda will be the first released versions of Windows 10 using Windows Core OS (e.g. the modular form of Windows 10). It will run on ARM using the Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 chip. I suspect Andromeda will have a CShell supporting a “phone” like experience, one for two small monitors, one supporting a tablet experience, and one supporting a laptop or desktop experience. The Andromeda device will have two phone size screens connected by a hinge. When the device is open, it will be a small tablet. The device will be able to fold in half, and when folded, will be pocketable. It will have a telephony stack, so will be able to do phone like things. When connected to a dock, it will use the desktop CShell and has the potential of replacing your PC. It is unclear if it will support Win32. Some sources are saying it will support Win32, but maybe not on the first release. This device sounds really great, but is it real? Microsoft has not made any formal announcements, but most reliable sources are expecting Andromeda to be released some time in 2018. And OEMs like Dell are on board with releasing their own version of an Andromeda like device in 2019. Convergence is coming!

Life with convergence will be simpler. I am really looking forward to this. Image having just one device for all your computing needs. You only have one device to purchase, configure, and maintain. You only have one device to purchase, install, and configure apps for. You only have one version of an app to learn how to use with one consistent experience. And sharing of data between platforms, like between a phone and desktop will be one less thing to have to set up. You will be able to do tasks for the best suited and accessible form factor. You won’t really have to think about how you have all your devices setup and configured to deal with all your workflow use cases and mobility needs. And with 5G coming in the near future, it is very likely users will just bypass WiFi for connectivity. 5G will have cellular connectivity forecasted in the gigabit speeds, which will be faster than what you can get with WiFi. So your one device will have the same connectivity where ever you go; away from home or at home. And only having one device is going to save you money. Think about how we purchase computing power today. We are paying a lot of money to have near similar computing power for three form factors (e.g. little phone, tablet, and desktop). Just as a basic estimate on what a family of three is paying for all this redundant computing power, say a family of three each has a laptop, tablet, and phone. Estimate $900 for a laptop that lasts four years. Estimate $600 for a tablet that lasts three years. Estimate a phone that costs $800 that lasts two years. Do the math. That comes to over $200 a month; or close to $2,500 a year; or $25,000 a decade! We need something simpler.

A pocketable PC is inevitable given the trends in computing power and miniaturization. What people are going to have to ask themselves, is what operating system are they going to want on this one device they own. Everyone has their own reasons, but let me share my thinking on this. Apple makes great devices. But that is their business model. They sell devices. When you go with Apple as your operating system, you can only choose between devices that Apple provides. I do not like having this limitation. I like for market competition to be able to make competing devices with different feature sets and price points. Android is a great operating system, but unfortunately, Android is an operating system for a throw away culture. OEMs love Android because it is free and they can modify it. Once they have provided maybe a few updates to a device, they have already moved on to the next great thing. They essentially abandon an older device, and the device will stop getting updates. This, in my opinion, is not acceptable. This one device is going to need updates in a world where hacking is common place. OEMs of Android device are not motivated to provided updates for the long term because it is not cost effective to keep maintaining these custom Android builds, and it allows them to differentiate OS features only available if you purchase a newer device. They want you to essentially throw away your old device and get a new one if you want it to be safe, and be able to run the latest stuff. These reasons are why I’m rooting for Windows 10 to be this one OS I will use for this one device. I think Microsoft can pull off this world of computing convergence.

So Microsoft has a strong mobile strategy because they have a strong strategy for computing convergence. We have to stop thinking that mobile means phone. Mobile just means small in size, connected with cellular, and can run on battery power. PCs of the future will be highly mobile and will be able to make phone calls. App developers will need to make apps that can deal with multiple form factors. Once we can all break this biased thinking that mobile means phone, we can enjoy and look forward to the world of computing convergence that is coming.

Copyright © 2018 by Jeffery Lewis. All rights reserved.
Published by WalletCard.org.

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