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Highs and Lows Part V: Microsoft's Smartphone Strategy; This is Not Your Father's Smartphone – Continuum

With Microsoft's ecosystem boldly boasting its presence on rival platforms through a proliferation of cross-platform apps, Redmond's mobile devices need a differentiator. Such a differentiator would allow Microsoft devices to showcase the synergy of products and services within the ecosystem in a way the same products on other platforms cannot. Enter Continuum.


"Imagine the effect this can have on mobile first countries where individuals can be as productive with the phone they're buying if they can't buy a full PC," – Belfiore, Build 2015

Continuum for the phone was one of the most exciting announcements from Microsoft's Build Conference. As we know, Continuum on tablets and hybrids allows the Windows OS to switch between the traditional desktop environment and the touch-friendly Modern UI, depending on the hardware configuration.

If a device like the Microsoft Surface is connected to a keyboard, for example, the user is presented with the familiar desktop environment. Disconnecting the keyboard to use it as a tablet prompts the touch-friendly Modern UI. That was the extent of our understanding of Microsoft's Continuum before Build. Joe Belfiore, Corporate VP of Operating Systems Group at Microsoft, changed that when he announced Continuum for the phone.

Conceptually Continuum for the phone works in a similar manner as is does on a tablet. When a Windows 10 phone is connected to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, apps such as Office and Outlook behave just like their desktop counterparts.

Disconnect the aforementioned peripherals and your trusty Windows 10 phone reverts to the touch-friendly, "pocketable" mobile device you know and love. Essentially every person with a Windows 10 phone will have a light-weight, hybrid PC in their pockets. That's just cool. Tony Stark cool.

Bottoms Up

Belfiore noted that Continuum for the phone would require new hardware. This means that existing Windows Phones won't support the pioneering function. The new hardware will, however, based on the scenarios Belfiore shared during his presentation, be targeted at a range of individuals across diverse demographics. Business users in the office and families on vacation were among those mentioned. Notably, his above quote that expresses yet another scenario, clearly indicates that Continuum is headed for devices targeted at populations for whom a smartphone is likely their only computing device. We're talking about the mid to low-end. The "next billion".

We can infer from that quote that devices that will support Continuum will include the more affordable range of phones. This, of course, greatly increases the appeal of smartphones sporting Windows 10 Mobile. Whereas presently most Windows Phones purchased are bought because they are affordable, Continuum introduces a potentially game changing differentiator.

Users who cannot afford both a PC and a smartphone could see continuum enhanced Windows 10 phones as a dual purpose value option. A lightweight PC as well as a smartphone.

This, of course, provides consumers who are in the market for a new smartphone, particularly those with limited income, an additional reason to consider a Windows phone over Android or the iPhone.

Lumia 640

Middle Ground

An additional part of Microsoft's Continuum for phones strategy may be Redmond's positioning of the feature as an incentive to upgrade within its ecosystem of devices and services. If Continuum is first offered on mid-range devices and above, the millions of consumers acquired through Microsoft's low-end strategycould see it as a very appealing upgrade option.

For many in developing regions, a smartphone is their first internet connected device. Thus millions of users of low-end Windows Phones will have experienced mobile productivity for the first time, through products and services strategically designed to engage them with Microsoft's ecosystem. They will have likely learned that many productivity and lifestyle apps designed for mobile platforms are effective, but inherently limited in many respects by the form factors to which they are confined.

Users who will have grown accustomed to these mobile tools within Microsoft's ecosystem may find their liberated, PC-like, Continuum enhanced iterations even more appealing. The ability for a user's next smartphone to function like the PC they desire but can't afford, makes a Windows 10 phone a tantalizing upgrade option. Such a scenario could also play out among citizens and students with limited income in more affluent regions as well.

"We will plan across the company, so we can better deliver compelling integrated devices and services for the high-value experiences and core technologies around which we organize.

Continuum is a feature that is not only appealing to low-end smartphone users. Enthusiasts, enterprise users, students and a host of other potential users may find the ability to transform their smartphones into a PC-like experience very appealing.

Wheat and Tare; Harvest Time (Or Sleeper Agents)

Continuum also draws on the seeds that Microsoft has purposefully planted on rival platforms. A strategy we shared in part two of this series. Consider this; Office on iPhone and Android will seem pretty limited in comparison to the revamped version of Microsoft's productivity suite that will launch on Windows 10 Mobile. Why? On a Windows 10 smartphone the apps will have the full range of functionality, just as their iOS and Android counterparts. But, with the additional ability to transform into a PC-like experience with a simple connection to a monitor and keyboard.

This experience, of course, would not be limited to Microsoft Office apps. Every cross-platform app that Microsoft has so liberally planted on rival platforms (as shared in part four of this series) will be relegated to a second class experience. That is, with the advent of Continuum enhanced Windows 10 phones. Users who have come to enjoy the Microsoft experience on their respective platforms may find themselves drawn to a Windows phone seeking, as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella would say, the best Microsoft experience.

Wait. There's more. Microsoft's first party apps would be more than core platform offerings. They would be aspirational applications demonstrating the differentiating capacity of Continuum. Third party developers who see the value of Continuum on Windows 10 Mobile could then develop, where appropriate, Universal Windows versions of their apps taking advantage of this pioneering functionality.

Imagine a growing library of flexible Continuum enhanced Universal Windows apps, with iOS and Android counterparts of these apps that are stuck in the archaic environment of a "one dimensional" OS. An OS that is unable to conform to more intensive productivity needs and flexibility demands as Windows 10 Mobile will be able to do. Window phones will likely begin to grow in appeal among consumers as the OS proves capable of flexibility and functionality beyond anything Apple and Google are bringing to the table.

"Apps," you ask? By providing developers with the tools to convert their iOS, Android, and Win32 apps into Universal Windows apps, Microsoft has done virtually all that it can to answer the app gap problem. Time will tell if developers respond. Microsoft's focus now is differentiating its platform from the competition to make it more appealing to both consumers and the developers it so desperately needs.

This is Not Your Father's Smartphone; The Ideology of a Continuum Based Ecosystem

"In the next few years, we will see many more new categories evolve and experiences emerge that span a variety of devices of all screen sizes. Microsoft will be at the forefront of this innovation with a particular focus on dual users and their needs across work and life."

When we were first introduced to Continuum by way of the Surface, we envisioned it as simply a means for the Windows 8.1 dual user interface OS to easily conform to different hardware configurations. With Continuum for the phone however we see that it is more a conceptual ideology shaping the way Microsoft is approaching modern computing.

Computing is transient. Our work and leisure productivity needs are not confined to a type of device or a particular environment. We live much of our digital lives in the cloud and across devices. Both we and Microsoft know that. To create a computing environment that fits seamlessly into this paradigm, to avoid the abrupt hiccups encountered when a device or OS fails to flow with our needs, Microsoft is introducing an OS, device, and services ecosystem that is malleable. Continuum.

Continuum introduces the idea and presents the reality that a device and OS can be fundamentally designed to reshape to serve changing needs; to conform to multiple scenarios. Humans do it all the time. I think Microsoft believes that our devices, which are increasingly more a part of us, should too.

High-End Hold Up

Despite a yearning by fans, I believe that foresight has restrained Microsoft from introducing high-end Windows Phones into the mobile fray of late. That knowing before Windows 10 and Continuum, Windows Phone 8.1 simply does not possess a compelling enough differentiator to entice entrenched users of other platforms.

Of course, that conclusion wasn't reached through mere speculation. The experience was the brutal teacher. Live tiles, Cortana and the unique Windows Phone UI are all appealing parts of the Windows Phone experience. These aspects of the platform, however, just didn't have enough consumer appeal to provoke Redmond to hazard another play with an expensive high-end device sporting its obscure Windows Phone 8.1 platform.

With the record setting success of the iPhone 6/Plus and Samsung's and other Android high-end offerings, a high-end Windows Phone 8.1 device, as others before it, would have gone largely unnoticed in the market.

Its failure would have likely been lauded by the tech media fueling negative consumer perception of Windows Phone as Microsoft prepares to launch its ambitious Windows 10 platform. Who needs that?

Windows 10 Mobile with Continuum, I believe, changes Microsoft's fortunes. It conceivably adds something to the mix that general users from all platforms will find appealing and that the media will find exciting. Continuum, I think, will be widely coveted.

Take "Note"; In a "Galaxy" Not So Far Away - The Evolution of Continuum

I know most Windows Phone enthusiasts are waiting for high-end devices with killer specs. I'm certain Microsoft will deliver. But that's not what's going to sell Windows 10 phones. High-end specs, quite frankly, are the price of admission. They'll simply get Microsoft branded smartphones a seat at the table. Nothing more.

Apple, Samsung, LG and others all have successful high-end devices in the market. They're known by consumers and are linked to ecosystems they have bought into. Differentiation is what will sell Windows Phones. Continuum, coupled with a uniform platform and universal apps I believe, is what Microsoft is positioning as that differentiator.

Additionally, as an ideology directing Microsoft's approach to modern computing I think we will see Continuum manifest in other ways as well. There have been leaks of what appear to be flagship Windows 10 phones. According to what has been shared of these great devices thus far, however, I don't think they represent the epitome of what Microsoft envisions as a blockbuster debut of a flagship Windows 10 phone.

Especially when one considers the precedent of the synergy of hardware and software the company set with their premiere tablet the Surface Pro 3, which Satya Nadella uses as a shining example of upcoming products.

Our first-party devices will light up digital work and life. Surface Pro 3 is a great example – it is the world's best productivity tablet. In addition, we will build first-party hardware to stimulate more demand for the entire Windows ecosystem. That means at times we'll develop new categories like we did with Surface. It also means we will responsibly make the market for Windows Phone, which is our goal with the Nokia devices and services acquisition.– Satya Nadella

That, with the recent purchase of N-trig, the Israeli-based company responsible for the popular OneNote connected side kick to the Surface Pro 3, leads me to believe a "noteworthy" new category of Windows phone may be on the horizon.

Do you see what I see?

Sound off in comments and on Twitter @JLTechWord

See you in Part VI-Noteworthy

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!

  • If you're using the mobile app for a quick recap of this series and a place to find all five pieces that have been published thus far just follow this link!
  • Continuum can be used wirelessly using Miracast, I saw that in a video demo from Build 2015, it was a working hardware
  • Yes t can be used wirelessly via Miracast.  No, that was not working hardware at Build, it was a simulator. Belfiore said it himself.
  • Whoops, looks like I was wrong, they did have some of the hardwear at Build.  My bad.
  • Only this guy can write a long article that isn't boring!
  • @Pallav Thanks man! I appreciate that. Glad you are enjoying these pieces. :-)
  • Jason,
    I respect your view but beg to differ. All this amounts to (so far) is largely iteration of Miracast into a two way protocol.
    Useful yes, but not a proper leap towards a 'Continuum' vision, and this is why I thought Build and Computex were actually both rather disappointing.
    For a proper Continuum, we need not only devices to connect to other screens, but true, seamless session transfer across devices. Where were the services, developer and hardware standards to support that?
    I want to be able to instantly transfer my authenticated login and app sessions instantly with an NFC tap of one device on a another. Tap my phone on a desktop or Surface Hub to transfer my session. Tap my phone to transfer back. Tap it on the dumb terminal or in-flight console. Etc. That's Continuum.
    No doubt it will require some clever Windows as a service shadowing or virtual desktop mirroring in the cloud or whatever, and is also no doubt a couple of years off, but it will all start with security, NFC and connectivity standards etc and that is all sorely lacking.
    Miracast 2? Yawn.
  • @mildmanneredjanitor Thanks for the input. I appreciate you offering your perspective. I like the vision you present here. :-)
  • Not mine, Microsoft's own concept videos from years ago. Plenty on youtube. The Build demo was a pale imitation.
    I just don't understand why they aren't building the foundational standards, especially with the manufacturers. Why don't screens have built in nfc arrays for example? Even for the phone continuum that would be a nice way to transfer content.
  • I like your vision and could see the usefulness of tap and follow desktops. I personally would prefer that my phone could be my sole device and screens for tablet, desktop and hub use would just be an accessory. I think MS could achieve this if they provided a free personal edition of Azure Remote Desktop with every phone that support Continuum.
  • Continuum will be a killer feature. But I fear one thing, or rather one set of things, will make it totally irrelevant in the US: carriers. Microsoft needs to start selling the unlocked, unbranded version of a phone within days of announcing it. Case in point: the 640 and 640XL. They were announced so long ago that their days' ago availability is kind of like a why bother when the next model isn't all that far away anymore. All the carriers have some kind of bring your own phone option, so Microsoft might as well cater to that, especially since those same carriers are still largely ignoring Windows Phone and will probably continue doing so.
  • And not onlt that... they need to provide as cheapely to the rest of the world as they do in US... Any of the unlocked phones available through MS Store/Amazon/BestBuys are much cheaper in comparison to Canada/Europe.... E.g. Lumia 635 available in US for less than $60 while in Canada its close to 130 and in UK its close to 100 pounds
  • For outside the US you need to add the relevant taxes!
  • It's really surprise me on howlong does it take for MS to launch 640 in the US. hehe
    Here? people really love it. They compare the 640XL to the Iphone6
  • As I understand it at launch only high end phones will support continuum. So the idea that this becomes a hit in mobile first countries seems like they would also need to have continuum work in mid to low end phones as well since that's what's selling in mobile first countries.
  • What is high and this year is low end just a couple down the line. That said, Continuum only really gets "interesting" on an Intel phone.
  • What do you think an Intel phone would give you that arm doesn't? Considering it would run the same apps?
    Even if it could run desktop apps, you really wouldn't want to on it due to performance. Universal apps is the way to go on phones which is already supported
  • Give me an ASUS Zenfone 2 with windows 10 and continuum and I'd be happy.
  • IF ONLY! Love that freaking phone. I've even tweeted Asus NA about it, but to no avail. They don't consider Windows an actual Mobile player.
  • Or they just can't talk about unannounced products. Sometimes, silence is the best indication that something is happening.
  • @NoFlames Exactly. It will have to become a hit in mobile first countries, and Id venture to say the buyers of mid to low end devices in developed regions as well. Belfiore's comments seem to really convey that that is indeed the goal. Continuum wont be limited to high end devices. Though it is certainly a welcome and useful function (at least in my opinion) on devices across all price points.
  • @Jason Ward, Continuum won't be limited however quoting Joe belfiore here: "to drive two screens new hardware is needed", so this could be interpreted in three different ways:
    1) only high end SOC is capable so only high end phones.
    2) they are waiting on Qualcomm to make available the capable SOCs for each tier
    3) they limit the ability to drive two screens to only the flagship phones despite capable SOCs are available for each tier.
  • I couldn't disagree with this article more.  I hate Continuum.  I LOVE the Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 approach, without reservation.  What Microsoft has done, as far as I'm concerned, is create a Frankenstein's monster with their operating system and it ruins the experience.
  • You hate something you haven't used yet? That's pretty amazing.
  • Haven't used?  I've been testing Windows 10 TP since the beginning.  I've been putting up with Continuum since it was added to the builds.
  • You most certainly have not been using Continuum. You don't even own the equipment able to run it, no one does. Do you even know what Continuum is? It sounds like you think it's the Windows Mobile 10 UI, it isn't.
  • Don't you wanna progress further in life..?
    Anyway, you don't account for everyone.
  • I was "progressing" just fine with Windows 8 and WP8, which are, in my opinion, infinitely better than W10.  And there's a reason I included "as far as I'm concerned".  Sheesh, people.
  • you're a minority, with devices like the Intel Compute Stick which can have a full desktop with 4K capability on a stick or Bluetooth keyboard + Miracast support on Windows Phone device like the Lumia 1520 or the 930 the line between a phone and a PC is closing so much that having Windows 10 to adapt to your device form factor automatically is the greatest achievement since Microsoft launched Windows 3.1 back in the 1990s.
  • The "tablet mode" concept is currently broken, I agree, but the hand has been forced with declining tablet sales and desktop programs that devs don't have the strength of vision to make touch-friendly. Things will get more integrated, just at the snail's pace that is usually relegated to government. The dev "bureaucrats" killed W8, and the lack of touch apps is dragging tablet sales down hard as a result. This will change as the ecosystem evolves, but it won't appear out of nowhere like MS hoped with the last OS.
  • I agree Windows 10 is horrid on tablets. Windows 8.x for the win. That being said tablets do not account for their market share.
  • @Scuabdog Thanks for your feedback. :-) Hopefully the majority of the market will be of the opinion that Continuum is something that they find appealing. It's what Microsoft has invested in and a strategy they have embarked upon. For the sake of the platform, lets hope that consumers perceive the value it adds to the ecosystem/platform. Along with all the other goodies Windows 10 brings I think Microsoft is offering a great alternative to the iPhone and Android crowd. :-)
  • *Tony Stark cool lol
  • @ScubaDog, I think these are somewhat apples & oranges or skis & automobiles -- Continuum on the phone enables an entirely different and new experience -- the ability to use the phone as a real Windows computer. I think that's interesting independent of how good the tablet-version of the UI is at present. I suspect that we'll see improvement on both the KVM and tablet user sides over time. Continuum will benefit from all of that. To your specific point, just my own opinion here, I like the Windows 8.1 tablet interface. I enjoy using Modern apps. However, I deeply resent having to bounce between screens. I hate that there are desktop apps and Metro/Modern apps. I think it's a UI abomination to have to go to a separate start "screen" to review my apps and launch one (unless I've pinned it to the Taskbar or put a non-live tile on my desktop, of course). I for one am glad they've re-unified the desktop with Modern apps. That's not to say I don't want to preserve as much of teh gesture and Modern functionality as possible within those apps. I don't have enough experience with Windows 10 to have an opninion on that yet, but I suspect I'll agree with you on much of that, except for the parts about keeping Modern apps in an isolated tablet mode apart from the desktop apps -- I'm very glad that's gone. But I also believe the gesture and tablet functions will improve over time, now that we have a sane, integrated foundation. For me, Continuum (especially this radical new implementation for phones) is a brilliant concept that should ultimately drive more users to have experience with the tablet side. This in turn will make app developers more interested in supporting Windows tablets, which ultimately gets you what you want.
  • Your hint has been 'noted' ;-)
  • So the big new innovation in smartphones will be bringing back the main feature of the Palm Pilot. :p Not to say that it isn't a great feature to have. I will definitely consider getting a phone with a pen when they're available. My girlfriend might be really interested in it to, because she much prefers handwriting over typing, at least when it comes to notes.
  • @FredBloggs007 You note that my hint has been noted is noted. ;-)
  • In future news: Continuum ported to iOS and Android, updated first and made better on those platforms.
    Remember when Cortana was supposed to be the differentiator.
  • The supporters and fanboys made Cortana or Microsoft Office as the differentiators, Microsoft never said anything like that ever.
  • Good point. They also never said that about Continuum either.
  • If iOS and Android can run Windows 10 Universal apps. I doubt it.
  • Didn't Satya say during Build that he wants people to move from needing windows to Loving windows... Do you make people love Windows by making apps & services appear first on iOS/Android or US/UK only??
  • Just for the record, Continuum is not an app. It's a feature integrated into the OS. Microsoft can't just build an app for iDroid that can make Continuum happen. Remember universal apps? They make Continuum happen.
  • The comparison is not appropiate at all, and at several ways at that. First of all, Cortana is a SERVICE while Continuum is an OS FEATURE. Microsoft wants people to be able to use their services on any device, they aren't going to port basic Windows features and functionalities to other platform. There is not the slightest benefit to Microsoft in that. Second, that would not even be possible - not on Android without the modifying the system (which would be implying releasing their own Android fork) and definitely not on iOS. The Android fork is the only plausible scenario in my opinion - and that's not going to happen while they are still giving Windows a chance on phones. If they decide to discontinue Windows for phones at some point in the future, an Android fork could of course happen, including a chance for features like Continuum. We are not there, though.
  • That comment from Joe is dumb as hell. A new phone with continuum will be $600. How can someone afford that and not a new PC ?
  • Dont forget they still need to purchase a monitor, keyboard and mouse.
  • RAM, speakers, SMPS, Graphics Card, HDD, and a cabinet to carry em all.
  • Also don't forget that people may only be able to spend $600 on one or the other. A phone makes more sense to have than a PC.
  • He was implying that Continuum may be available on more affordable devices as well.  At least mid-tier devices.
  • Don't forget about carrier discounts. Some people don't even blink at a 2 year contract or monthly payments. 
  • Where did you read that the phone will be $600? I did not hear Microsoft say anything about it. Please provide the link.
  • I'm with sully on the $600. No flagship-level phone will cost less. Spread those payments out however you like, but the price will still be$600+ for the first models supporting Continuum. Continuum on lower tier models won't happen for at least a year.
  • @Wpguy, a flagship phone can be had for $600 dollars. If you spread your payments over monthly obviously your paying more - how do you think carriers make money?
    (note: this is just one of many revenue streams).
  • Because their choice will be a $600 phone (that can be carried with them and fill the necessary phone role as well), OR a new PC (that can't go with them and can't fill that mobile phone role). I'd guess that those in a situation where they have neither, the phone will win that debate in most cases.
  • To the Microsoft faithful, Continuum may seem to be a worthwhile differentiator. To regular ios and android users who have already moved on from the old paradigm of mouse and keyboard computing and already own a tablet of some sort I dont think they will see it as being a particularly attractive feature worth switching ecosystems for. And as the hardware supporting it will be of the high end variety, its not going to see the level of uptake speculated in the article in countries that lean towards the lower end of the device spectrum.
  • "I dont think they will see it as being a particularly attractive feature worth switching ecosystems for" I agree but on the other hand it's rarely a single feature that makes the difference between switching the ecosystem or not. It's the sum of small and not so small things and Continuum may of course contribute to that - we'll have to see. It's certainly kind of a niche feature not everyone from the masses is going to jump at (or at least in the short to mid term), but not everything has to be a mass product to be succesful in its own right - see the Surface Pro 3, for instance.
  • Pretty much what I think about it. I for one don't really care about Continuum.. If I have a monitor, keyboard and mouse it's because they are already part of a desktop PC.. So why using my phone to do the same thing I can do on the desktop and probably with better performance? I feel like it's a really niche feature.. Don't know if it could be a game changer in emerging markets, it might be or it might not.. What I get from this article is that Microsoft is targeting emerging markets and we customers in Europe and USA should not expect anything to be worth buying over the competition. Also, the lack of flagship devices in EU and the USA is (imho) hurting sales, here people buy galaxy Ace or whatever they're called because they look at the Galaxy S and think they must be at least similar to a certain extent.. my carrier doesn't even have Wp's on contract anymore.. And I'm in Italy, one of the countries where Wp has a double digit market share.
  • There are two places that I can see Continuum making waves - business and education. A lot of travelling execs I know don't need a full fledged computer to do work on the road. Yes, a lot of them carry around an iPad with their shitty 3rd party keyboard attachments (ah, see that, a keyboard). It's mostly for them to check/respond to emails, view spreadsheets and run a presentation. They also want to travel light which is why they bring an iPad - on a sidenote, I've gotten a couple execs to buy a SP3 because of the light form factor with full capabilities. Now, if all they needed was to run a few presentations for their 1-2 day trip, Contiuum on a phone would be perfect. The enterprise space is where it will shine. As for schools, Chromebooks have been dominating the classrooms. I have a hand in the decision making process and the biggest reason why they're so popular is because they're cheap. Also, students aren