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Cellular voice could be the next step in merging phones and PCs

Surface Logo
Surface Logo (Image credit: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

In 2016 Microsoft and Qualcomm announced Windows 10 on ARM. The achievement promised to make traditional PCs of current and future form factors more like smartphones in relation to battery life, constant connectivity and being always-on. (This is in conjunction with other always connected PC solutions). The overarching message here is the evolution of the PC in relation to making computing via Windows a natural part of the cellular roadmap. Smartphones have evolved in the opposite direction, from simple voice-equipped "cellular native" devices to complex pocket computers with telephony.

Cellular infrastructure, much of it defined by Qualcomm's technology, powers the always-connected smartphone and communication paradigms of data and voice to which we have grown accustomed. Windows PC computing began as a "disconnected" experience that slowly gained a "connected" role over the years via wired and Wi-Fi solutions. Still, both a technological and perception distinction between the two computing platforms remained. Our collective mindsets have long accepted that there is a chasm between "always connected mobile computing" and "sometimes connected PC computing." Some have even argued that eSIM-equipped always connected cellular PCs are irrelevant or unneeded because we have Wi-Fi and tethering.

The issue, however, isn't about just having connectivity which Wi-Fi and tethering provides. It's about how PCs with secure and consistent connectivity as part of the cellular roadmap potentially impacts the evolution of computing and communication. Combined with 5G and edge computing eSIM-equipped always-connected PCs with voice may be the next step in merging the progressively overlapping PC computing and telephony-powered communication and computing paradigms.

Windows 10, consumer choice and changing paradigms

Always connected PCs use eSIM or, embedded SIM, technology. eSIM, like traditional removable SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards identify and connect a mobile device on a network. Unlike SIM cards eSIMs can be remotely provisioned to work with another carrier. In other words, consumers don't have to physically go to carrier stores to switch SIM cards when they switch carriers. In relation to ACPCs users can currently switch between data plans and carriers virtually on the fly directly from the Microsoft Store on Window 10.

Additionally, eSIM allows multiple devices to share the same plan and phone number. Currently, eSIM-equipped Apple Watches can share an iPhone's phone number. China Unicom's pursuing similar implementations of sharing phone numbers across multiple eSIM devices. This addresses concerns about adding another plan when using connected devices like ACPCs and smartphones. The long view for this technology is that eSIM will allow a host of connected devices from cars to a cat's collar to share the same data plan.

In the short term eSIM-equipped ACPCs, Windows 10 and consumer choice, are beginning to put pressure on carriers to be more competitive about their data packages and to rethink the current carrier-based model. Earlier this year, for instance, Sprint offered free data to consumers who bought an ACPC from them. PCs on the cellular roadmap are already impacting telecoms and how they offer data packages, which historically favored the carrier-phone-centric model.

As eSIM becomes more popular in smartphones, which are essentially pocket PCs, and eSIM-equipped ACPCs grow in the market as the type of Windows PCs many users choose, sharing a plan across multiple devices will likely become the norm. Carriers will likely be compelled to push such plans to remain competitive. These shifts that are beginning to happen around data and cellular PCs are reshaping the carrier-consumer relationship and market infrastructure that will also accommodate voice plans if voice comes to PCs.

Why Microsoft's mobile future may depend on eSIM

PCs with voice are still PCs

Voice plans coming to PCs would fit well within Microsoft's current strategy. Microsoft is positioning Windows PCs as the hub for users' cross-platform digital experiences. Smartphone and PC integration through the Microsoft Graph, the cloud, Cortana, Sets and apps like Your Phone help tie users' experiences on iPhones and to a greater extent Android phones to Windows 10. Microsoft's two-fold goal is to facilitate the smooth transition of digital experiences across devices and ecosystems and to diminish in some scenarios users' interaction with their smartphone while using a Windows PC.

For instance, currently, a text message sent to a phone and shared to a PC can be answered from the PC without users ever retrieving the phone from a pocket or bag. A natural progression of this overlapping computing-communication model involves voice communication. If voice is added to cellular PCs a user while working at a PC, could potentially answer (or place) a call directly from Windows using the device's built-in microphone and speakers, or a wired or Bluetooth headset.

Microsoft's Surface Headphone's may be its most important accessory yet

Consumers' ability to choose carriers directly through Windows, Microsoft's partnership with Qualcomm and others to ensure Windows PCs become a regular part of the cellular roadmap and its investments in 5G and edge computing are forging the necessary infrastructure to help push a convergence of PC computing and voice communication. 5G will provide increased data capacity and speeds to support autonomous device-to-device, in addition to device-to-network, communication. This may help build the necessary network infrastructure for more diverse computing-communication models. This may include varying combinations of voice only or voice and video communication across computers of varying sizes and configurations from pocketable, desktop and laptop to Surface Hub-like PCs all sharing a single plan and phone number.

Shifting models

Under this converging computing-communication paradigm, data and voice plans would likely be less tied to a smartphone model since non-phone eSIM-equipped personal devices would be growing parts of the cellular roadmap. Thus, under this evolving model, in time, purchasing data and voice will likely no longer be centered around buying a smartphone and then adding other devices to that smartphone plan. As cellular Windows PCs of various sizes and form factors and other eSIM devices, like wearables grow in use, the consumer-carrier relationship will likely become even more "service-centric" rather than "device-centric."

Carriers will likely begin focusing their models and marketing on voice and data plans for all of a user's connected devices. PCs, mobile devices and even connected cars will likely be able to share the same voice and data for communication. Microsoft's investments in platform services that support connected cars, the push toward transforming the PC into a mobile, always connected device of various form factors coincides with this potential computing-communication evolution. Microsoft's Surface Andromeda digital journal which initially was to be slated as pocket PC, but maybe a larger device, still fits within this computing-communication model.

If Microsoft's goal is to support voice as part of its cellular PC vision the growing popularity of voice/video communication via screened devices may help its reception. Google's Home Hub, Amazon's Echo Show, Facebook's Portal and other smart displays are pushing "ambient" computing and communication via screened devices into the mainstream.

Moving forward

LTE laptops provide a faster connection than tethering

LTE laptops provide a faster connection than tethering

Cellular PCs with voice and a shared phone number may initially be more relevant with business users working on PCs while also fielding phone calls. However, the slowly increasing role of smart displays as communication tools among consumers sets a precedence that a laptop, PC or tablet in a home could also serve as a "smart display" and be a person's "phone" in some contexts.

Furthermore, Microsoft, its OEMs partners, and others are exploring innovative PC designs from inspirational pocketable configurations like Intel's Tiger Rapids to larger PCs. As computing and communication continue to overlap, creative and form-shifting hardware will likely accommodate more diverse communication scenarios than we are accustomed to under the current phone-centric slate device model.

One thing is certain; nothing remains the same and change is inevitable. And voice coming to cellular PCs could add a dimension to the computing-communication paradigm that further merges PCs and phones.

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

37 Comments
  • I absolutely require Dual Sim, Dual Active. I live, work between USA and Mexico. I must maintain phone numbers in both countries and have flexibility to receive on both lines and send on the line I prefer. That goes for phone calls, text and instant messaging (like a WhatsApp). This ability will not be coming to always on laptops anytime soon... Here in the US it's viewed as a niche scenario...
  • So the question I have is, would eSIM allow for this very setup?
  • You can at least port your US number to Google Voice and use it on a PC as well with Google Hangouts. I do that to keep my US number while living in Central America.
  • I use Google Voice through Skype for Business so my phone and computer ring no matter which number is called. It is awesome, but doesn't really change the way I think about my Surface Pro. . I actually rarely use it for calls since my headphones are mostly connected to my phone. Windows doesn't work as well as Android when it comes to Bluetooth and apps. The buttons on the headphones basically don't work with Windows.
  • I don't see any of this as new or surprising. It simply seems to be a given. Really, VOIP has long been a part of the equation, so any pretense that they are separate is tied to traditional thinking. Data is data, whether that modulates into text, images, sound or video. At this point, it's more a delineating mechanism contrived by carriers than anything else. For myself, I'll always need a device that EASILY fits in a pocket that's got the capabilities of what we currently call a smartphone. I don't really care what we end up calling it---it's a waste of time debating terminology when function is the value-added piece. As someone who loves his Surface Pro, there is no in-between size that works for me. While I bring my SP most places, there are plenty of times that my smartphone is the only device I carry, and I would NOT carry anything even the tiniest bit larger. Where I use my SP, I would not carry anything smaller aside from my phone. And I wouldn't leave my phone home just because I was carrying an SP that had cell capability. And I can always tether my SP to my phone as it stands now. My biggest issue with always-connected computers, regardless of form, is the CARRIERS. They want to make money, naturally. However, it costs me more for every line and expansion of my data plans to cover said devices. If they can figure out how I can take advantage of however many always-connected devices I have but only have one "line" and a reasonable price, then I'm all for that. I don't see that happening anytime soon. So, really, I'm not seeing anything new or surprising in this article. It's a natural evolution of devices and capability.
  • So, really, I'm not seeing anything new or surprising in this article. It's a natural evolution of devices and capability. Thanks for reading Scuba. Not every sees or agrees that its a natural evolution. And some who do, see the impact as limited, rather than a shift that can have widespread impact on an ever-overlapping computing-communication model. Some see the too as something that has no potential of merging and will forever remain distinct. Some also don't see the progressive impact ACPCs if they become a greater part of the market, could have on shifting the balance of power away from carriers toward consumers and MS: https://www.windowscentral.com/how-cellular-and-telephony-enabled-pcs-will-give-microsoft-power-carriers There are a lot of moving parts, 5G improving network capacities and speeds, innovative folding PC designs that offer context sensitive communication and computing scenarios, carriers needing to be more competitive as Windows 10 gives customers more power, smartphones continued PC evolution and becoming recognized as tablet PCs (Samsung's Folding Infinity Display sets a precedent where the device is acknowledge as a phone that turns to a tablet) further overlapping the smartphone and PC markets - effectively in time possibly eradicating the distinction. Particularly if voice comes to PCs. Carriers will have to treat PCs and smartphones simply as PCs with telephony market categories will have to realign to accommodate this shift as carrier models also shift and consumer behavior does potentially as well. This as you say is obvious to you, yet not an obvious potential course to everyone.
  • It's not only obvious, we were already there in the narrowband modem days. This is not really an advancement, this is getting back what we used to have (a frequent, general desire amongst Windows users of course). Ok, so it's the wireless world's equivalent, but essentially it's bringing back telephone functionality to modern PCs which I miss greatly. Personally I've never been able to work out why telephony packages died.
  • Jason, this sounds more like a battle of balance sheets. I told my dad back in 1998 when I bought China Mobile. China has the opportunity to forgo the investment in building a network of copper wires between every phone. They will use the best last mile solution. Cell phone technology. Verizon and AT&T see the writing on the wall. They want to provide information as a service, like entertainment. Everyone knows that people will use multiple devices to access information. When my dad was a kid (1941), his father walked into the house packed a bag and said I have to leave. I will be back in 2 weeks. Dad asked why? His dad said listen to the radio. Who remembers watching Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. We all watched it on TV. But in the late 1970s, the PC was born and the information age began to digitize the movement of information. Now video, voice, and sound are converted to a digital signal and directed to anyplace in the world. Will MSFT's game streaming service become the dominating service for gamers? If yes and others competitors succeed, no more game consoles. Will Netflix become the dominant method of video entertainment? If so the networks die. How can carriers charge by the line through data caps? The only way is for Verizon's balance sheet to overpower those that wish to displace its position. MSFT's balance sheet is proving its worth in moving MSFT from selling software to selling an information service. The question you are asking is who owns the network. Does Verizon by convincing you to pay them a monthly subscription fee to access the information network? Or does MSFT by having the cash flow (supported by your office 365 subscription or your xbox annual gold card-or whatever it is) to buy data access from the cheapest provider at any given place and time for the device you are using?
  • This. I've been saying this for years now. If you want to make phones less relevant. Let all devices in all form factors take calls and SMS. People will naturally progress to the device that fits their lifestyle. I have been practically begging for Microsoft to put telephony on the Surface line since the 3 w/LTE.
  • How many lifestyles would work better with your large, non-pocketable PC receiving calls instead of your smartphone?! Very few. This is a nonstarter. Only the biggest nerds, the never leave the basement, don't really need a phone types will be interested in such a thing. They will just use the multitude of FREE options available today.
  • Yes. Because your usage is by far the baseline for all technology users worldwide. I say, do it and see where the chip fall. What could it hurt?
  • I never said anything about me. I make and receive calls from my computer occasionally though. It is only useful when gaming at home. I don't have to remove my headset, can answer the call, and keep playing. When on the go, in airports, and traveling I rarely make or receive calls on my Surface. Why would your headphones be paired with your PC in such a situation? You then have to open your PC to change the music or pause it? Makes no sense.
  • 1.) I point you to Surface Headphones. Which can pair with 2 devices simultaneously.
    2.) Counterpoint to your use case, I don't pair Bluetooth headphones with my phone. I do everything that needs doing on my Surface. The phone is for calls, sms, and notifications.
  • Surface Headphones aren't mobile and are very expensive. They are for sitting at a desk in private, not walking out in public where you need to hear ambient noise. Anyways, so you are walking through the airport and have to take your Surface out of your bag, open it up and place it on a table, sign in, and then you can pause/play/answer calls/etc? Makes no sense. No one is going to do that. Just pair your headphones with your iPhone and be done with it. PC is just for typing and creating. Not phone calls and mobile media.
  • I think maybe you have a fundamental misunderstanding of how varied and capable Bluetooth headsets have become. Multiple device hosts, Answer call/hang up, Play/pause, track skip features are built into a lot of them too. Also, You actually set your Surface down on a table to sign in? I hold mine in my hand, face unlock, and use it (try to choke back your vomit) in tablet mode to handle mundane tasks. Really it is just a difference in preference with you and I. I prefer to not have to carry around multiple devices. And it would seem from this comment section, that I am not uniquely alone in this regard. My point is still valid. Adding telephony to all devices will open up the possibilities for users to carve their own use cases. Cellphones will no longer be a requirement (as they are to most people now) and will become just another option. To each, their own.
  • I just answered a call from my Elite x3 using the Dell Connect software. It was an interesting test as I assumed it wouldn't work. Well... actually, it isn't supposed to be working since it thinks my phone is an iPhone so it will not list contacts or anything but I can get call and texts notifications. I turned the text off cause I can't respond plus I use Cortana on my PC from the notification center but I may start fielding more calls now. Too bad this was not in the pipeline but if I could initiate/receive calls from my PC without needing a second phone number, that would be great.
  • Google Voice does this well.
  • Think you’re missing the point. Most ppl don’t use their “phones” to make actual phone calls anymore. Somewhat sad I know but true. I.e. I work in an large office of 1000+ employees. I make/receive on avg about 1 phone call every two weeks. And I’m involved in lots of simultaneous large IT projects that... in the old days... would have resulted in hundreds of phone calls. But today everybody’s emailing each other, Skyping, texting, or using MS Teams. What we can’t get done by one of those means we have a face to face meeting about. That’s the world we live in today. SMS on my phone is wonderful when I’m at the Coffee Shop or on my way into the office (hands free of course) but when I’m within reach of a larger device with a real keyboard and hopefully a mouse then I much prefer that experience to a tiny little device where my fingers are twice the size of the “keys”.
  • Or people who work on the go? Currently when I am out of the office on a train, plane or boat and I want to make a voice call: - If I am lucky enough my colleague is logged into teams and has a headset to hand ready to chat.
    - I swith to my mobile and call them. I always have my BT headphones, why wouldn't I just want to call them without changing devices? PS currently I do this using a Skype subscription but I'd rather not maintain a second service.
  • Why would your Bluetooth headphones be paired with your PC? Windows doesn't work well with Bluetooth, the buttons likely won't work depending on the app and the app probably isn't available or better on your phone anyways. Are you going to stop and open your laptop everytime you want to change the audio?! No, your headphones just pair with you phone and are easily controlled by your phone without having to stop.
  • Yea, I could imagine a scenario where some people may not have a cell phone. Some mobile professionals might always have a laptop with them. For these type of people it might be advantageous to have a capable smart watch a Bluetooth headset and laptop acting as hub, sitting in their bag. Use the watch for small interactions, the Bluetooth for voice interactions, and the lapto for more complicated interactions.
  • I've been saying for a few years now that we'll eventually see carriers adjust their pricing models to accommodate the growth of connected devices of all kinds. People who say connected PC's won't take off because no one wants to pay for two service lines are completing missing this. Sprint offering free data is just an early move in this space. We also have Google Fi, which offers customers additional data-only SIMs for free, significantly expanding its list of compatible devices; this will put additional pressure on AT&T and Verizon to reduce their barriers to connected device adoption.
  • So looking beyond the fabled "Surface Phone" device (something that can enter your pocket), cellular telephony for all (devices) means that Andromeda will only be uniquely differentiated by (1.) its form factor and (2.) its peculiar usability scenarios. I think of the Andromeda device as a complement to users with existing Windows-powered hardware who are on Microsoft services and syncing to the cloud. I mean, right now, I wonder if it's possible for someone to have just an Apple Watch and a MacBook without having an iPhone and still have the telephony syncing (since the Apple Watch has a built-in SIM). If that's possible then, the smartphone (in this case the iPhone) become less fundamental to the connected experience of a user's mobility and productivity. Only addiction to mobile games and social media would still make it necessary. I imagine Andromeda with a Timeline/Microsoft launcher hybrid, tabbed interlace, running on Edge's Sets, and having quality PWAs and strong UWP apps pre-installed (including myTube, etc.). Like I said in another article's comments section, I think just like you cash manage notifications on a wearable,, Andromeda would excel at managing the states of ongoing processes on other signed-in devices (like game downloads on Xbox, updates on call logs and other app activities, together with the usual Office Graph-/ Cortana-powered experience-continuation features Microsoft has sought to build into every Microsoft OS. I also look forward to the Headphones as a voice-focused competitor to other wearables (like the Apple Watch) via a focus on voice assistant on your phone, standalone mobile communications device (with eSIM and separate data plan) able to be your on-ear secretary, sending text messages, sending and reading emails, answering queries, tracking states of app actions on other devices, e.g., aforementioned Xbox downloads) and so on. Eventually, the user's computing experience is competently distributed between his or her preferred companion device (Headphones, HoloLens, Andromeda) based on their unique input modality, and the main productivity device(s), such as, laptop, desktop, Studio, etc.
  • One of your best Jason. This paradigm shift is already happening, and it’s cool to see it unfold. I think Nadella’s perfectly positioned MS to ride this wave. And yes eSim in everything is the key to it all. Better, more competitive carrier offerings, on demand options, easy to set up a temporary plans when outside the country... all good. And nice point about the device independent nature of it. Furthermore ACPCs need to expand to embrace GPS and SMS. Would love to rock some turn by turns on a ten inch device. Or text my wife without having to stop what I’m working on and fish the dumb phone out of my pocket. And to use a real keyboard while doing so... priceless! Bottom line... the less we have to use that tiny little spellcheck co-dependent virtual keyboard on our tiny little 4 to 6 inch screens... the better.
  • This concept only works on VoLTE and beyond, since they use the same data network as the LTE ACPC of today use. Then you have to consider that with the existing separation, carriers are often regulated by local governments to provide some QoS on the voice side of the service. This means that MS would need to have devices certified for networks. This gets us no farther than we're at today. As I've maintained from the day MS retrenched their mobile efforts that they wouldn't return as long as they (and their OEMs) were required to register with carriers. Sadly existing cell companies and cell phone manufacturers will try to perpetuate this collusion into the next wave of radio frequencies and their corresponding technologies.
  • I don't understand this "merging phones and PCs" idea. It makes no more sense than "merging" a crockpot and a microwave oven. Or merging an 18 wheel truck with a motorcycle. Two very different (yet similar) things for two very different use cases. Phones already do everything the vast majority of users need. One need look no further than sales numbers. 1.5 billion phones were sold last year. 240 million Windows PCs were sold. Windows phones were a spectacular failure. It is very obvious that most people do not need/want a Windows PC in a pocket. Phones are now the mainstream, mass market Personal Computers. Windows PCs are the niche. A very important niche to be sure, but a niche nonetheless. I realize the dream here is to be able to compile VS code while on the road. But that is a niche within a niche. Those wanting to do that - or thinking they NEED to do that - are a tiny minority of computer users. The vast majority of users just need internet access/voice/text/music streaming/video streaming and a good camera. It needs to be easy to use, easy to carry and last all day. Phones do all of that - and more - just fine. For most people, their phone IS their Personal Computer. In fact, nothing is more personal than a phone. It has YOUR music, YOUR pictures and is always with YOU. That it is a Personal Computer without running any Microsoft software does not mean it is not a "real computer". It is all the computer most people need. In that sense, phones and PCs have already "merged". The only thing missing is Windows, and the vast majority of users don't care. In fact, they don't even realize its "missing".
  • Bad analogy, First Windows Phones, were no more a pc than iOS, so not a good comparison. 2 the reason for Windows mobile's fall was that they were late to market and had a significant app gap. None of this has anything to do with merging pc and phone form factors. What if something comes along that is both better than a phone or a pc. Smart glasses could potentially do that when the tech matures enough. More likely though is that we will begin to have a myriad of different devices that all approach the problem from a different angle. I don't think there will ever be a one size fits all and that is why I think this article is mostly correct. It won't necessarily be that PCs and smart phones merge, it will be that people will increasingly connect with technology in different ways that AREN'T cell phones. Smart watches, smart glasses, Smart headphones, Always connected PCs, CarPCs, Smart Speakers. MS calls this ambient computing and I think they are right about this, they just haven't figured out how to implement it.
  • No modern phone last a full day if you even remotely try to use them for anything. Listening to music on my way to work and then some casual web searches alone bring me down to 20% battery before the day is over. None of my phones can even remotely handle the most basics of tasks for my work. The only think it can do is flawed mail handling and basic look ups in our case handling software.
  • Is anyone asking for this? If you want this functionality, it is easy to have today through Google Voice, Skype, iMessage (or Continuum or whatever Apple calls it) or many other similar options. It really isn't that useful. It is nice to have occasionally, but your phone is never far, and is much easier to palm. This article is kinda ridiculous. It sounds like something that corded phone manufacturers would argue as cordless phones took over. Why would you want your phone to become less mobile?
  • Windows phone is dead
  • Just now figuring that out?
  • No, it not dead yet...It's in coma!
  • No, it's dead now. It didn't make it, so they called the Chaplin in.
  • I cant see this working with the US dataplans any time soon. Plenty of other countries have moved away from ever putting a limit on calls nor do they charge for calls per minute. Last time i checked US carriers still make you pay for received sms and mms. While still a step in the right direction i think Asia and Europe will move forward with this faster then the US and the rest of the Americas.
  • Most US plans are unlimited calling and texting. Many even have unlimited data. There are pay as you go options, but they tend to be for people who have limited useage needs.
  • Then that changed since last i checked but then again it was quite a few years ago i last looked into the US mobile market.
  • Reading this makes me wonder...you Windows guys do realize anytime someone with an iPhone get's a call near their Mac they can answer on the Mac if it's on the same WiFi network. Been that way for years now...You do know that right? No eSim required...