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Future of the PC is an intelligent cloud that connects a family of devices

The transient nature of personal computing, from mobile to sedentary to consumption and to productivity settings, has made personal computing very complex. Gone are the days where all of our computing occurred on a single device, such as a Windows PC, Mac or even a smartphone.

To accommodate our "transient computing" behavior, the "PC" (a personal device that handles our computing needs) is evolving into a family of context-relevant hardware on which computing occurs across devices, and our digital experiences occur increasingly within an intelligent cloud.

The "personal computer" is more than a single device.

There are some who point to a single form factor as the evolved or redefined PC. I think the mobility of our digital experiences paints a much larger and more complex picture of what the PC is and will become.

Microsoft is instrumental in redefining the PC

I recently wrote, that "Microsoft – not Apple – is redefining the modern PC." In that piece, I challenged respected writer Walt Mossberg's analysis that Apple is best positioned to redefine the PC. He believes an ARM-based laptop running only iOS apps will redefine the PC. From Mossberg:

But the signs of a shift to ARM only set the stage for a bigger development: The migration of the most important modern software platforms, Android and iOS, to laptops and other traditional hardware that once defined the old kind of PC ...I believe it won't matter much until Apple builds an ARM-based laptop running iOS.

I thought his view lacked the perspective of the evolving PC form factors beyond the laptop and traditional PC, as well as the platforms such as Microsoft Cloud, Windows Mixed-Reality and the Universal Windows Platform (UWP), that are driving innovation in new PC experiences across the industry.

Microsoft's mobility-of-experiences focus

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has made a point of emphasizing his vision of the mobility of a user's experiences. He stresses that mobility is not about the mobility of a given device, but is about the mobility of a user's digital experiences across devices. This is an important point to acknowledge in this modern age of personal computing, where many consumers use multiple devices such as smartphones, tablets, PCs and laptops as portals to their digital content.

Consumers use many types of devices as portals to their digital content.

As much of that digital content exists in the cloud, a single device, even a "primary computing" device, or "PC," such as a smartphone, begins to fade into the background, and the current and future personal computing landscape comes into view.

That is, as the intelligent cloud continues its integration into our lives as the personal computing platform, we will become more aware of the ephemeral existence of, our access to and our ability to manipulate, our digital content wherever and whenever, on context-relevant hardware, and we'll be less focused on a single device.

Microsoft's cloud focus, UWP and the Windows 10 device family create a foundation and ecosystem for this personal computing landscape. Mossberg's vision of iOS apps on a laptop seems like a short-sighted goal by comparison.

Microsoft is solidifying its vision, Apple has not presented iOS on a laptop

If Microsoft had not already redefined the PC with the Windows 10 device family (including Surface and HoloLens), the UWP, Continuum and a host of PC partners who have brought millions of Windows 10 laptops and 2-in-1s (that run mobile apps) to consumers over the last two years, I might be inclined to agree with Mossberg. If industries, businesses, and entities such as NASA and the military were not adopting HoloLens, a wearable Windows 10 PC, I again might be inclined to agree with Mossberg. If Windows Mixed-Reality (formerly Windows Holographic) wasn't powering much of the industry's virtual, augmented and mixed-reality personal computing endeavors, well ... I think you get my point.

Microsoft is a driver and platform for multiple personal computing modalities.

Personal computers and personal computing take many forms and are broadly and deeply represented in our industries, lives, businesses and cutting-edge areas that push the boundaries of innovation.

The intelligent cloud, where Microsoft ranks second only to Amazon, powers computing for both large enterprises and is the unifying thread for the consumer's digital experiences. Here I'll address these instrumental agents to the PCs evolution, which are profoundly more relevant than a copy-cat move of putting a mobile OS and mobile apps on a laptop form factor.

Before we get there, since Mossberg's analysis was founded on iOS's and Android's dominant mobile ecosystems and Microsoft's consumer failure of the same, let's review my previous argument and begin there. (If you read my last piece you can skip the next section.)

Windows 10 Mobile is irrelevant, but Microsoft still drives the shift

Mossberg asserts that Microsoft's mobile app ecosystem lacks the critical mass to propel a mass adoption of a traditional productivity form factor, a laptop, that runs mobile apps. With that, I must agree, at least in the sense that Windows on phone (and the companion app ecosystem), which now has less than one percent share, has been unsuccessful.

But Windows 10, because of the UWP and universal apps, is just as valid a "mobile" OS as Android and iOS, though (sadly) it is less relevant on a pocketable form-factor.

Windows 10 is a mobile and desktop OS.

Android and iOS are important from Mossberg's perspective because they are the primary mobile platforms that consumers use. And bringing mobile platforms and their associated apps to a productivity-focused clam-shell form factor, he asserts, is the direction in which the PC is evolving. It is, and it has, but it's not waiting on Apple.

Mobile apps (as part of an OS that fit a productivity-focused desktop context) are what Microsoft's UWP, which is supported by context-conforming universal Windows apps, accomplishes. These apps fit mobile, desktop and even mixed-reality personal computing environments.

As such, part of Microsoft's vision for the "redefined" PC has been rolling out for nearly two years, and Windows 10-based 2-in-1s and laptops have been embraced by consumers and PC manufacturers.

Mossberg is right ... and wrong

You see, Mossberg's shift is happening. But it is not waiting for an uncertain move by Apple to make iOS and iOS apps fully compatible with a keyboard-and-mouse productivity scenario, akin to what Windows 10 touch-enabled 2-in-1s and laptops provide.

Nor has it been dependent on a mobile app ecosystem to promote mass adoption of the form factor running mobile apps. (See my previous piece for a major caveat). It is being propelled by Windows 10 PCs and Microsoft's OEM partners that have been seeding the market with the type of touch-enabled clam-shell devices that have mobile apps, that Mossberg asserts iOS would be the transformative agent in promoting to the masses.

Windows 10's effects on transforming the PC go much further than 2-in-1s and laptops, however.

The ties that bind

A recent Cntrl-Walt-Delete podcast featured the following statement: "This week Walt [Mossberg] and Nilay discuss how they use their tablets, laptops and phones and how there's something missing linking those gadgets."

Though Microsoft has not yet optimally implemented its intelligent cloud, Windows 10, UWP and Windows 10 device family strategy, I believe it is or at least best represents the gadget-connecting link for which Walt, and his co-host, The Verge's Nilay Patel are searching for. Microsoft's platform approach not only has the goal of unifying a user's digital experiences across Windows 10 devices, but Redmond is also incorporating iOS and Android in its mobility-of-experiences vision.

Microsoft is tying Android, and to a lesser extent (due to its closed nature) iOS, into its Windows ecosystem. Through Windows 10 and cloud computing, Microsoft is managing users' digital experiences across devices and making the idea of a personal computer, as in a single device responsible for all or most of our computing, less relevant.

This is the area where I believe Microsoft has the greatest advantage over Apple in the modern computing landscape.

The Windows 10 device family is PCs redefined

The combination of Microsoft's UWP with cloud computing ideally makes the mobility of a user's experience far more efficient than focusing on a single form factor.

The UWP and digital experiences managed by the cloud give users a common UI and the same app experience across PCs, phones, 2-in-1s and HoloLens. Even Xbox is sharing more in common with the other devices in the Windows 10 device family. This commonality of a shared experience will apply to even new devices that join the Windows 10 family.

The Windows 10 device family provides context-relevant PCs to manage digital experiences.

Microsoft's investments in category-defining devices have made its technologies the platform for the modern age of personal computing that is less tied to a single device. I believe Microsoft's impact on the evolution of the PC, will continue in line with a cloud-based experience that carries user's experiences across multiple computing devices (personal computers) based on a user's context.

Furthermore, I believe personal computing will in time include ambient computing. Ambient computing is a term I use to define a context where mixed-reality glasses and goggles will be used to augment a user's perception enabling him to perceive and interact with a digital plane. This digital plane will be created by an IoT saturated environment in the home, business and public settings. The video below provides a visual of such a scenario:

How Microsoft's mixed reality strategy may augment its Home Hub and IoT visions

PC future is bigger than a laptop with mobile apps

Yes, the PC is evolving, and I believe Microsoft's investments in the UWP, the cloud and mixed-reality better position it to impact that evolution far more than what Apple may offer. We're moving into a personal computing future where multiple devices in our lives will act as "PCs" at different times and in different contexts, while the cloud maintains the consistency of our experiences.

We're entering a future where mixed-reality, in which Microsoft not only leads but which also provides a platform for the industry, will define new ways for users to interact with their digital experiences.

How might mixed-reality and modern PCs augment our interactions with digital content?

I am confident that Mossberg sees personal computing and the evolution of the PC as something beyond the laptop with mobile apps he described (and that Microsoft has already achieved). His piece, admittedly, was addressing a small portion of a much larger reality. The breadth of computing is far broader and is becoming increasingly more complicated than a user in a stationary position interacting with a single device.

It is an experience that we are "submerged" in even now. The digital world engulfs us and our smartphones and PCs act as our vehicles to navigate and windows to perceive that increasingly ambient digital environment. Mixed-reality glasses and goggles, based on HoloLens tech, will eventually be added to the repertoire of other PCs we use and will make navigating that digital plane even more natural.

Microsoft already has mobile apps on a laptop

Microsoft already has UWP mobile apps on a laptop. Mossberg hopes Apple will get there. While Microsoft nurtures and improves that achievement it is also pioneering the next steps in the PC's evolution. Mixed reality, Windows 10 on ARM via cellular PCs, and potentially an ultramobile PC with full Windows 10, Cshell and telephony can be seen on the horizon.

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It will be interesting to see if Microsoft introduces an intersection of mixed-reality glasses with an ultramobile Continuum- and telephony-enabled Surface running full Windows and Win32 and Store apps.

A synergy of those two modern PC modalities would give users two devices that work in concert as a tablet, full PC (via Continuum), phone and mixed-reality personal computer.

That sounds almost like science-fiction, I know, but so did the phone-iPod-internet device former Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced as the iPhone ten years ago. Apple combined available technology and changed the personal computing landscape.

As the pioneer of a unified platform, holographic computing and context sensitive hardware and software, and a leader in intelligent cloud computing, Microsoft can do the same.

Advice for Apple

If Apple, within the current personal computing landscape defined by the mobility-of-experiences and context-relevant hardware, puts iOS on a laptop and dubs it a PC redefined, it could potentially seal its reputation as no longer being an innovator. Following that vision would be akin to Apple's mistake of adding a keyboard to the iPad Pro and dubbing it the equivalent of a Windows PC.

Microsoft's personal computing vision, though imperfect and not always optimally executed, embraces and provides the tools for the current and future personal computing landscape.

Today and in the future, the PC is and will be many things. And Microsoft is providing the platform, hardware form factors and pervasive and unifying cloud-computing platform to support the new and evolving age of personal computing. If Apple wants to compete, it will need to do more than put iOS on a laptop and call it a PC redefined.

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!

71 Comments
  • Thanks for reading folks! The PC is increasingly becoming the intelligent Cloud managing our experiences across context sensitive devices and software. A single device seen as "the PC" will, in time become less if a focus as we become more focused on our cloud-based digital experiences that we will access across various devices seamlessly transitioning across context relevant hardware. Mixed-reality glasses as part of this scenario giving us a view of a digital plane "constructed" by pervasively integrated IoT devices in hokes, businesses and public will be an interesting development. A pairing of mixed-reality goggles with an ultramobile Surface as part of this, "family of context relevant hardware" would also be interesting. So what are your thoughts, the PC is leas about a single piece of hardware as ☁cloud computing is becoming the "PC" and is managing our digital experiences across devices. It's not perfect or optimally implemented yet, but we're heading more deeper in that direction. Do you agree, disagree? You know the drill...LET'S TALK!!!
  • future of windows is the bin.. sorry .. privacy please !!
  • This article is confusing. I have a couple questions: 1. Is this an argument against Continuum and a single device future? 2. Did you just discover the cloud? It has been around for a while now. It is tough to imagine Microsoft still bring relevant to consumers in 5 years. We hear all this talk, but we haven't seen anything from Microsoft in years. When is it coming? When will we have more than talk?
  • You still in cave or what?
  • Hi bleached, sorry you're confused. To answer your questions: 1. No this is not an argument against Continuum. Continuum on PC as well as Continuum on a mobile device can and do coexist in an environment where an intelligent cloud is already and is
    becoming more integrated in our personal computing. 2. I'm not sure what in this article suggests I just heard about the cloud, but, no it is not. The motivation and timing for this piece is a continuation of the rebuttal (Microsoft - not Apple - is redefining the PC) that I wrote in response Walt Mossberg's piece that posits Apple redefining the PC. You can also refer to some of the pieces at the end of the article where I talk about the cloud at other points in the past. Hope that helps. 👍🏿
  • 1. What is the point of Continuum when the cloud makes your data ubiquitous already? 2. You wrote an article about the cloud being the future like it is still 2005. It is 2017. The cloud is here and isn't dependant on Microsoft or Windows at all. It is more an argument against Windows. Why do you need such a complicated platform when everything is in the cloud?
  • Hi Bleached, I'm not sure if you took the time to read every word of the article before joining the conversation. But in 2005 there was no Universal Windows Platform and Windows 10 family of devices, nor an increasing integration of Android or iOS (which didn't exist in 2005) into the Windows ecosystem, nor was there as evolved a mobility of digital experiences between devices, ALL points referencing the current implementation of the cloud that I put forth in the article; I know that it is here.
    Also, very few technologies are wholly dependent on any one company except where monopolies exist, and the DOJ and other entities work to ensure that doesn't happen.
    Some companies, do however, have a far greater influence due to thier investments and position in particular technologies than others. Amazon, Microsoft and Google have far more influence in the cloud than Apple for instance.
    Microsoft and Googles productivity suites in conjunction with the cloud give them a leg up in that regard to Amazon.
    Microsoft's Windows 10 family of devices, laptops, PC, 2-in-1s, phone, HoloLens, Xbox, in conjunction with cloud gives them a more comprehensive approach than most. Microsoft provides a solution from all angles in a way others don't Cloud, Platform (UWP), Hardware, Software (Productivity and other tools). That is not to say they will "win", if winning is even necessary, but this piece written like it is 2017, incorporates the current computing landscape with the current implementation of the cloud. 😉
  • Whatever the future is, it will be swept out from under MSs feet yet again. Same promises for years that they will change the game. At this point i think MS could achieve their vision only if Google and Apple stood still for the next 5 years. MS is hurting the ones who love it the most!
  • I understand you perfectly, I swear that Apple does not stand on a "gazilion" dollars without investing in a unified and touch-friendly OS.
  • But that is all Apple.  What he speaks of is a system in which all people can link into in the cloud and have everything they do available on any device they have.  Windows 10 allows that to some extent right now but it is not as universal as it would be if it was implemented through the cloud and a new Windows 10 cloud might be just the one for all to use cloud with less expense involved instead of some of the cloud systems in place at this time which is more geared toward business.
  • Bleached....maybe in the mobile space.  However,  in the desktop/home space MS is very much relevant to the consumer.  I would NEVER use a MacOS device.  Its a terrible mish mash of an OS,  the devices are over priced and under performing and Just Meh! 
  • Sales are dropping, Windows 10 isn't growing and Microsoft is becoming more and more Enterprise focused. As mobile devices become more powerful and tasks are made easier on them, how does Microsoft stay relevant with consumers?
  • You will want keyboard and mouse if you need to do anything more compelx than write a short email or schedule an appointment, so Windows is not going anywhere.
  • Keyboard support isn't exclusive to Windows. Why would you need Windows to use a keyboard?
  • "how does Microsoft stay relevant with consumers?" The answer is...they don't.  MS believes their future is Windows Server powering their Cloud strategy. They're consumer focus is the xbox, mixed with finding a new footing for Win10 as a gateway to their Cloud services.  Bing, Cortana, Office 365, etc, etc, etc.  That's how they stay relevant with consumers...through the Cloud and all the devices that interact with it.  
  • How long until this website change its name to Microsoft Web Services Central?
  • I wish I could agreed with you but working in IT consulting I am seeing just the opposite. Only one person in my neighborhood uses Windows at home besides me and it's because they got it for free. Everyone else uses Macs if they have anything because they believe it's safer and easier to use. Others use mobile devices because they are good enough. When speaking to them about Windows every one of them is still under the impression Windows is slow, buggy, full of viruses, and requires constant maintenance. I'm seeing a similar sentiment in SMBs where it's become hard to sell Windows for most. About the only that still buy Windows without question add typically engineering firms. We've had entire businesses inform us they are switching completely to iPads, cell phones, or to a lesser extent Android tablets.
  • Similar but then they want published windows applications to work with.  I agree with you my neighborhood dynamics is similar and working in virtualization I see this a ton as well. (people using portable devices other than MS products).  But when they use a MS device they are confused as to the speed and are usually looking for a dang app...
  • So you're pretty much saying Apple has dumbed everybody down.
  • Then Apple must be the best magician, because they are closer and closer to make one trillions dollars with one phone. LOL
  • Or they made computing simple and accessable. Same thing, different spin. Why do you feel it is necessary for a user to be a computer expert in order to get their work done? Why can't a computer be simple and easy to use? Your attitude is a perfect example of why Windows is losing consumers and becoming a niche operating system for professionals with heavy requirements.
  • Because what you are pointing mostly on consumer product with arm chip or light consumer business. When you look on to big companies like aviation co., investment co., bank financial co., accounting firm., car manufacturer, Samsung for example they are heavily relying on Windows. Then following by business mobile devices, mixed reality do have the potential.
  • Thing is,  apple computers are NOT easy to use...they are actually harder and more random than windows.   Close down a program?  windows,  you hit the x.....in MacOS,  you have to go to menu,  click close program,  then most likely have to "RIGHT CLICK" on the icon in the dock and click close program too....apple prides itself on being easy to use...but its all marketing, smoke and mirrors.   Windows is way ahead of MacOS.   And YES,  I own both!
  • Who said anything about Macs?
  • I've always wanted my phone to replace my laptop and still do (no use for a tablet in my life). WM device with Continuum/dock and x64 program support will finally make that a reality.
  • Really, Apple has already done a laptop with iOS. The iPad Pro with a keyboard is, for all intents and purposes, just that. How does putting it into what essentially equates to a hardshell case with a hinge change anything? I think a kicker that's eluded to in this is that the definition of "portable" has changed. People don't just want their device to be super portable. We've achieved that. They want their content to be super portable (where the cloud comes in). Xbox Anywhere isn't great just because you get a PC copy of a game free with the Xbox copy (or vice versa). It's great because your progress, or your content, goes with you. And it's super portable because the user doesn't have to do squat. It's the same with Cortana. I don't have to replicate everything on each machine I use to have Cortana present the same content. I just sign in and "Bam!" There are my interests, the stocks I'm tracking, etc. It's ultra portable. Cloud storage systems like DropBox and OneDrive started this. I could have a PowerPoint shared on my cloud and, with relative ease, get to it from any machine I own. But what we're seeing is Microsoft go beyond Word docs and the like. It's becoming integrated into t