It has been almost fourteen years since I wrote a piece focused on the topic “device convergence”. At the time, Microsoft’s Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC Phone Edition devices (yes, that was really a name; one day I will write an article just on the insanity that was and sometimes still is Microsoft’s branding strategy) were being marketed as “all-in-one”. In 2003, this meant your device could be used for things like –
- Phone calls
- PIM functions (calendar, email, tasks)
While these tasks are the norm today, they were typically handled by more than one device back in 2003. You carried your laptop, MP3 music player and phone to complete these activities. The claim became that you only need one device – your WM2K3PPCPE (this is still easier than typing that whole stinking name out) device. The article I wrote back then basically challenged that notion.
When I wrote my article, my position was not that there could never be such a thing as a “converged device”; in fact, I truly believed one was on the horizon. I did believe, however, that it was too soon to try to use the current wave of devices for that purpose. They simply were not ready for this due to limitations on the hardware of the time. Using your single device for everything typically meant sacrifices in –
- Battery life. In 2003, a single movie on your phone would typically be enough to drain all the battery. Just typical operation limited battery life on average to 3 to 4 hours.
- Storage capacity. On-device storage was limited, and expansion cards were expensive. In 2003, I paid way more for a 32MB card than I would today for a 32GB card.
- Processor. We have come so far when it relates to mobile CPU and associated chip technologies. In addition to power inefficiencies, there was the simple lack of performance when performing any number of tasks, leading to a less-than-desirable user experience.
- Overall user experience. The industry was still trying to figure out what made for the best user experiences when performing tasks on a small screen. Microsoft’s approach at the time was to essentially “shrink down” desktop application user interfaces. While they functioned, they were less than intuitive and far from optimized for the phone.
The point of my article back in 2003 was “when the time is right, device convergence will happen. It is just not now.” It really did take a few years, as even the first couple of iPhone iterations were far from perfect as a converged device, and Android had a lot of work to do initially when it came to usability and performance. But we did get there. We reached the point where for many people, a single device would suffice for a number of tasks. However, there was and still is another level of device convergence yet to be achieved; the true “all-in-one” device that includes the ability to perform all the tasks of the traditional desktop computer.
While many would argue that such devices already exist, my criteria for the “ultimate converged device” as I will call it includes all the common abilities we see today in an acceptable device form factor. It also includes the ability to run desktop applications. This is where things get tricky. I don’t expect to be able to run a complex application on my small screen, but if I were able to dock or connect to a monitor, keyboard and mouse I should be able to do exactly what I would do if at my desk running a full-size machine. I am also willing to compromise here in that some applications require chipsets so high-end that, for the foreseeable future at least, I simply do not find it reasonable for that technology to make it into an ultimate converged device. For the average user or worker however, this should be an attainable goal.
In order to create the ultimate converged device, we really need to look at how the operating systems have been traditionally crafted. For Apple, Google and Microsoft, mobile operating systems have been traditionally built separate from any desktop counterparts. For Apple, iOS was built to mimic in some ways but never to duplicate OSX/MacOS. For Microsoft, even with Windows 10 Windows 10 Mobile has been crafted for a different chipset. The same goes for Google and Android as a fork of Linux. As a result, I cannot simply install my desktop application on my phone; it doesn’t work that way. For years, there were very good reasons for this. Many of the reasons I mentioned back in 2003 still applied more recently as the goal became more complicated. However, s it so inconceivable to think that the ultimate converged device is that far off now?
One of the things an ultimate converged device would need to have is awareness of what it is connected to at any given point in time and control what can or cannot be done based upon that connectivity. Microsoft already has a working “proof of concept” so to speak today with its Continuum capabilities in higher-end Windows 10 Mobile devices. When docked or connected to the correct peripherals, the UI adapts accordingly. Microsoft intends to extend this in Windows 10 across devices with CShell (Mary Jo Foley provides a good overview of CShell in a post for her All About Windows column at ZDNet). If extended to my ultimate converged device, my phone would look and behave like a phone when just the device is used. When docked or connected (remember, wireless connectivity might just as well suffice), the device not only looks like a desktop UI on my monitor; I have access to all my applications at that point.
In order to run my desktop applications on my ultimate converged device, I would need to provide it with a capable operating system. This also gets a bit tricky, as operating systems are typically closely tied to chipsets, and traditional desktop chipsets simply have not been efficient enough for highly mobile devices (i.e. – phones). This is rapidly changing, however. While many believe Intel essentially abandoned the mobile space when dropping their mobile-specific lines, I believe that their focused efforts on improving efficiencies in their other designs are leading to a point where they themselves could potentially be used in an ultimate converged device. We are not quite there yet, though. In the interim, there is an alternative to bridge this gap in the form of emulation.
Google is already leveraging emulation to some extent with Chrome and Android applications. However, this is more of an “inside-out” approach, as we are seeing mobile applications being brought to a “desktop” platform rather than the other way around. Microsoft, on the other hand, seems to be attempting to move more aggressively in this direction with the creation of Windows 10 for ARM chipsets and an x86 emulation layer. Basically, Windows 10 could run on a traditional high-end mobile chipset (think Qualcomm Snapdragon here) for compatibility and performance, yet also run traditional desktop applications. If you have not seen this in action yet, you can start with this Microsoft BUILD 2017 presentation and demo. If Microsoft can get past Intel’s obvious objections regarding this approach, emulation could be combined with CShell to provide the ultimately desired result – a phone that could, when properly connected, serve as a functional desktop machine that finally brings “mobile” and “phone” together.
For Microsoft, this approach to a truly mobile phone has huge implications. They definitely have the most to gain in bringing to market a device that can serve as the single computing piece of hardware for all needs. While the benefits would not be nearly as great for Apple or Google to look towards a similar approach, they must be considering the ramifications for their platforms should Microsoft bring such a device to market. While loyalty to the iPhone and Android runs strong, most of these users still rely on Windows for day-to-day activities, especially in the workplace. A phone that could also perform that work would be enticing to say the least.
In 2003 I felt that a converged device was technically possible, but the sacrifices and limitations left the average user dissatisfied. In 2017, I do feel the same way with regards to a true all-in-one PC/phone. However, I feel that we are closer to the ultimate converged device in 2017 than I felt we were to a solid multifunction device back in 2003. The changes to mobile computing with such devices will be quite profound for both the business world and individuals. It has been a long wait, but I am looking forward to “mobile” and “phone” coming together once and for all.