Why Microsoft's Continuum may succeed in putting a PC in your pocket, while Motorola's Atrix failed

But before the new mobile OS arrives the question many have is:

"What will differentiate the platform from iOS and Android?"

One answer according Microsoft's Satya Nadella and Joe Belfiore is,

"Continuum" for phone.

Critics argue that projecting the small screen of a phone to a larger display to mimic a desktop environment has been tried and has failed before. They offer the Motorola Atrix as an example. They've concluded that the factors that contributed to the failure of the Atrix will also lead to the eventual failure of Continuum. If Motorola's Atrix represented the full scope of Microsoft's position with this similar technology, I'd be a critic too. However, that is not the case. Allow me to project a bigger picture.

We will look at:

  • Technology
  • Industry Position
  • Timing

Technically Speaking

Let's first take a look at the technology. In a nutshell, both Microsoft and Motorola promised to combine the functionality of multiple devices within the context of one. With the added support of peripherals, both companies promised that their particular approaches could essentially turn your pocketable smartphone into a PC.

The Motorola Atrix was released four years ago in Q1 2011. The device ran Android 2.2 (Froyo) though the newer Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) had been available for approximately two months by the time the Atrix was released. We'll hit on that fragmentation bit in a bit.

Motorola's approach was simple. It was essentially a plug and play proposition. A user could plop his/her Atrix into a proprietary Motorola desktop ($129) or laptop ($499) dock and his/her phone screen and apps would display as larger versions of themselves on the new display. Unfortunately, there was no coding within the mobile apps to make them function more like desktop apps once on a larger screen.

They remained just phone apps, behaving as phone apps on a "non-phone" display. This particular dilemma is at the core of similar attempts at this one-device-for-all-scenarios solutions. The Asus Padphone suffers from the same fate. Microsoft's Continuum has a remedy for this.

At its core

To understand the differences between Microsoft's approach and that of its competitors, we must understand a fundamental aspect of Continuum. Continuum is not simply a feature that Microsoft is implementing on a single hardware device. As I shared in "Highs and Lows Part V: Continuum", it is an ideology governing how Microsoft is approaching the transient nature of modern computing. By way of a synergistic OS and hardware combination that can conform to a user's needs, Continuum is an ecosystem-wide platform solution that currently supports hybrid Windows devices and Windows 10 Mobile phones. The new category of devices that Nadella alluded to in his "7/10/14" memo may also benefit from Continuum.

So what is the remedy for the app dilemma faced by Microsoft's competitors? Universal apps of course. Microsoft's pioneering efforts to create a single OS core for all Windows devices has established a bridge that successfully conveys apps across form factors.

Though there is some code tweaking required to tailor apps for each form factor, the dream of coding once for all devices has been realized. Windows 10 empowers developers to code a single app that is optimized to work as users would expect with a mouse and keyboard (shortcuts and all) for the desktop environment. Plus it maintains the small touch environment of a phone.

Additionally Continuum enabled Windows phones can connect wirelessly to a keyboard and mouse, and with a Miracast set-up, to a larger display. Microsoft will also provide a hub currently dubbed the 'Munchkin' (unconfirmed $99 price) that will have numerous ports to facilitate a wired connection.

Because Continuum is a platform capability of Windows 10 rather than simply a device feature, Microsoft's OEM partners will be capable of creating similar hubs to accompany their Windows 10 phones. Acer's recently announced Jade Primo and hub are an example. The open competition among OEMs will help keep Continuum accessory costs in check. Unlike Motorola's expensive sole proprietor solution.

Moreover, Microsoft's solution allows for a smartphone to power two screens simultaneously. That means a parent can wirelessly project a video to a larger screen for junior while dad triages emails on his Windows phone. The Atrix was incapable of this.

Satya Nadella

Satya Nadella (Image credit: Windows Central)

Power position

The technology is just the first piece of this puzzle. The unique industry position of each of these firms is the second profoundly critical component.

First, Motorola as a single OEM (among many), simply using and contractually constrained by Google's version of Android, had little power over the OS beyond skinning it. They weren't even using the most recent version of the OS at the time. Thus, though Motorola created hardware designed with the flexibility to conform to various scenarios, they couldn't modify the OS to do the same. Android at its core was not designed to reshape to fit diverse form factors. Additionally, in 2011 the fragmentation that still plagues the Android platform upon which the Atrix was built was even more profound.

By contrast, Microsoft controls the Windows 10 operating system. As such the company has deliberately designed Continuum as a fundamental component of the OS. Any Windows 10 device (phone/tablet) with the proper hardware will, therefore, have the ability to use Continuum. Microsoft will also manufacture Continuum enabled hardware and has many OEM partners (and is courting others) who will do the same.

The sheer scope of Microsoft's position in the industry to promote and support Continuum through partnerships, first party device production and full control of the OS dwarves the minuscule impact Motorola's Atrix had on the industry four years ago.

Many of Microsoft's 1.5 billion PC users are upgrading to Windows 10 which at its core erases the barriers between the PC and the mobile versions of the OS. This decision is a powerful power play. With the support of OEM partners, Microsoft has the resources to bring Continuum to the broad base of Windows users. If that fails or succeeds is yet to be seen. The point here is that since Motorola's efforts to "converge" devices was not something built into the core of Android (as it is with Windows) their impact on the industry and its chances for success were negligible.

Additionally, the Atrix, which was only sold through ATT in the US (though available in other regions), had limited distribution. Now Microsoft is no stranger to limited carrier support. However, the fact that Continuum is a platform-wide capability that will have the benefit of multiple OEM partners, and the additional distribution channels of Microsoft retail ensures that Continuum enabled phones will be more widely distributed than the Atrix ever was.

Timing is everything

The Atrix failed for many reasons. The main reason? The world wasn't ready. When the Atrix launched in Q1 2011, we were about four years into the iPhone initiated a new age of smartphones. At that time, the market was dominated by devices under 5 inches. In late 2011, however, hints of a new age began to emerge. The "huge" 4.7" display of the HTC Titan and the even more "titanic" dimensions of the 5.3" Samsung Galaxy Note dominated headlines. These phones that were pushing the size envelope were also pushing the industry into its next chapter.

In the years that followed, a Samsung led charge provoked OEMs to produce ever larger phones that teased at the dimensions of small tablets. We now exist in an industry where the new norm is 5" plus phablets. Phablet being the word created to describe the combination of a phone + tablet our smartphones have become.

Take note, these larger devices are not just bigger phones existing in the same type of consumer space that was the reality from 2007 - 2011. During that time frame, consumers saw their devices as "phones" with added capabilities.

Steve Jobs' (who is credited with heralding in the age of the smartphone), 2007 introduction of the first iPhone, corroborates this notion.

"...an iPod, a phone, and an internet communicator." - Jobs 2007

Devices under 5 inches, which were the norm for that period, fit well within a paradigm where users still saw greater use case scenarios for larger computing devices.

With the advent and widespread acceptance of powerful 5" – 6" phablets, computing activities previously reserved for PC's and tablets have now shifted comfortably to the smartphone. Phablet's are routinely used for web surfing, gaming, listening to music, watching videos, banking, emailing, chatting, video and picture editing and much more.

Take note that those computing activities were added to the things inherently baked into a mobile platform. Thus creating a merger of formally PC/tablet use case scenarios with the mobile environment of the phablets many of us now own. Computing is indeed increasingly mobile.

The industry has flowed organically into a place, a particular paradigm, where people are very comfortable using their smartphones/phablets as a composite device. It happened naturally. The pent up demand for the larger iPhones that saw record sales is additional evidence to this reality.

As smartphones continue to bear the load our tablets and PCs historically bore, they may continue this natural progression from our primary computing device toward our only computing device. Both the technological and human components of the industry are meeting at a crux where a convergence of computing modalities is becoming the accepted norm.

The time is right

The 4" Motorola Atrix did not exist in a consumer space that had evolved to the point of near single device dependency. A space where PC's and tablet sales are on the decline and smartphones are heavily relied upon for more advanced computing needs.

This is the space into which Microsoft has introduced Continuum, the Windows 10 OS, and the universal app platform. Microsoft is the only tech company to have designed an ecosystem platform that will support devices that are that all-in-one solution the industry seems to be headed. Consequently, Continuum achieves what Motorola's Atrix (and similar solutions) could not.

  • It benefits from a universal app platform where apps are optimized for both a phone and desktop environment.
  • It is a core component of the OS and ecosystem platform that OEM partners can take advantage of by building Windows 10 phones and peripherals.
  • Industries, businesses, and municipalities can be key partners in supporting the third party support infrastructure for Windows 10 devices (hubs/docking stations).

By contrast, the Atrix suffered from the following.

  • Phone apps that were not optimized for a larger display.
  • Motorola did not control the software platform essential to support the hardware.
  • Motorola was a single OEM offering a single device rather than a provider of a platform capable of supporting an industry.
  • Accessories required for the Atrix were proprietary and expensive.
  • The Atrix had limited distribution.

Wrap-up

Critics may be right. Continuum may fail. But if so it won't be for the same reasons the Atrix failed. Motorola's approach was that of a feature specific to a device that was part of a larger ecosystem.

Microsoft's approach is a platform play that will power a diversity of devices across an entire ecosystem.

As such, with OEM support, I see a possible future of airports, schools, offices, hotels, libraries, homes etc. equipped with hubs (and wireless accommodations) designed as Windows phone docking stations ready for Continuum. The world is ready.

What are your thoughts? Let us know in comments!

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!

288 Comments
  • Hey everyone! Thanks for reading this piece. As is often the case, if you read this by way of the smartphone app don't miss the included Sway! Also, don't forget to share this piece and Sway with others. Many people have wondered what advantage Continuum has over similar attempts at this "one-device" goal. I'm confident this answers many of the key questions. Of course this is a community and the strength of this venue is sharing thoughts, so once you're done "sharing" via social media sound off below. Let's talk!:-) SWAY:
    https://sway.com/vm9DCAwm4F5QO-sx
  • A crisp and well written article that really makes sense. Continuum would certainly give ms an edge over other os's for sure! But what would make me happy would be a new mobile build today!!
  • It's a weekend. They don't release builds on weekends.
  • Lol I share ur tots but sorry no builds on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays, u should have known by now
  • tuesday i guess...although secode week of calender month
  • Continuum would certainly give ms an edge over other os's for sure!
    Wait, I thought Continuum wasn't necessary to run Edge on Windows 10. Doesn't Microsoft already have Edge? LOL! Sorry, couldn't resist!
  • Continuum isn't really making huge inroads with consumers.  They don't care, and while it can be useful to some business customers, Microsoft already monopolizes that part of the market so it isn't really going to be a game changer there, either. The article was well written but it is putting too many words to a pretty simple predicament.  Many people have a "why bother" attitude towards these devices. Universal Apps are also kind of terrible comapred to desktop apps.  You're better off hooking a cheaper notebook up to a TV via HDMI and using BT accessories than using a phone.  I don't expect that to change soon.
  • The article is amazing. Many answers for the questions I had in my mind....
  • @Pallav and Insane Warrior Thanks so much! I appreciate that! Please share. Others may find it equally as helpful! :-)
  • I still can't get one thing: how can continuum be helpful for me. I mean yes it's great, it's supported by universal apps, it works with every display, but... Ok, let's imagine a case where you're continuum-ready. You got a 5.7" Cityman, your TVs and displays support wireless displaying, you have an energy efficient PC (NUC by Intel or a custom-based with a low-energy Nvidia Maxwell card), an affordable Atom tablet (Core M maybe if you need it for working on the go, not just skyping on a coach) and maybe your old WinRT tablet. Xbox too if you'd like. In the office you have your PC, or your firm uses thin clients, or something. Presentation and meeting rooms have their dedicated devices so you just use OneDrive for business to show a presentation or something. Or it's BYOD so you just hdmi your display out from your tablet right to the screen. Fast, since it's x86, and ANY desktop app, since again it's x86, not ARM. So, my question is: where is the room for Continuum in this case? Who has a big display and needs to use it for something that he cannot do on a 5"+ phone but does not have a PC connected to or embedded in this display?
  • You have to watch the video. This will Ne huge for the people who don't have all those devices you just talked about. In that case for a few basic needs, this will be huge. Imagine only having the Lumia 950/950XL and a mouse and keyboard with nothing else(well a TV or monitor of course). This could be huge for students who mostly need a laptop for papers and basic Internet searches. This would effectively make their phones their main computing device running Word and being able to text or make calls in between. Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • You seem not to be sure of the sort of the students you are talking about, I'm afraid. I can't imagine a man that has a top phone and can't afford an x86 pc/laptop/tablet that's mostly even cheaper than 950 (assuming it's predicted price). Talking specially about students, when I used to be one with the wind in my pocket, I had no time for playing with that all. We needed specialized x86 software on fast machines provided by our university, and nothing less. ARM devices are still too slow for this even now. Even for browsing, nowadays, when pages often weight 2+ MB, and CSS on one page reaches 500Kb (!!!) sometimes. Average Windows Central news page loads for tens of seconds on my Lumia with a broadband connection.
    I mean, yes, Continuum is great and perspective, but timing is not accurate. ARM is slow (even atom is still rather slow), amount of apps is not enough, those who need it - the are few of them. Sorry for my language, English is not my native :)
  • It's OK you did fine and you're right I do not know about all the technical stuff. I am purely an above average, little less than nerd consumer. I guess we'll just have to wait and see how they implement it and how well it works. Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • Since I'm quite a fan of MS, sorry to know we just have to wait and see and do nothing. I still believe MS didn't prepare neither consumers nor industry enough for Continuum. Hope the press will do their part, but to be useful their articles must not leave people with questions "great thing, but who needs that?"
  • Well, as the article suggests this is something rather new so it's difficult to say exactly how it will play out. If Continuum does truly take off in a meaningful way it's like that the scenarios you describe (with individuals and locations having lots of different devices) will cease to exist altogether. I for one have a hard time thinking of a good use case for Continuum in my personal life, being that I already own a PC, tablet and Xbox in addition to my phone. However, had I been able to use my phone as a tablet/laptop for school before I purchased one that would've been an attractive prospect. I know that my company, and I would imagine many others, is often looking at ways to consolidate devices for people in the field so they don't have to go around lugging a tablet, phone and laptop. It wouldn't be terribly far fetched to imagine cash strapped schools, which are currently buying Chromebooks by the truckload, moving to a model where they simply provide screens with mice and keyboards for students to connect their phones to. As for the capabilities of ARM and lack of x86 app support... Well, I don't think that ARM is as far behind as you think. And if Microsoft has its way then x86 will be a thing of the past. In the meantime, there's little reason why an OEM couldn't make an x86-based phablet using Atom or even a future Core M release.
  • I don't know what you mean, web pages load just as fast on my Lumia 1520 as they do on my 3.8 GHz OCed 8 core x86 64 bit AMD FX-8120 with 16 GB DDR3 @ 2133 MHz, and 2 x GTX 980's in SLI running off a SSD for OS and a 4 TB storage drive. Me, yes, I'll always have a desktop for gaming. Mobile GPU's just don't cut it yet, but for web browsing, skype, facebook, youtube, etc. This continium will be huge. Why have a seperate tablet when you could just plug the phone into a larger touch screen (10-14"), or use it as a smart TV instead of buying those Roku like devices. The limitation here is what the OEM could imagine to build. Your phone could be your tablet, smart tv, desktop, all-in-one.
  • Dude cut back and simplify.
  • Nice write-up, keep it up
  • @mattoneandoriginal Thanks for the support! :-)
  • Ask the dude with the WP app to update the damn thing...embarrassing compared to Android's.
  • until they find a way to run win32 apps ... there is no hope 
  • There is a way, you need a x86 based mobile processor to run them, instead of the usual ARM based chips
  •   I would assume intel's release of Boxtron, 1st half 2016, will provide this capability.   Also note that Microsoft had to wait for Qualcomm to release new parts to allow running two videos simultaneously. I have woned several years why Intel has been so slow in being more competitive in mobile.   think it just comes down to unavoidable technoy problems.  Intel needed 14 nm to makets x86 work on mobile devices.  The quest now is will ARM be able to retain its competitve position once intel's boxtron chips hit mobile.  I would say yes given the power of the iOS ecosystem.  But if Intel's insistence that its' 14 nm technology is superior to TSMC over Smasung, then it is only ime before Intel releases a chip design that provides superior battery performance and computing power in the x86 ecosystem.
  • They already "found" a way and it's coming next year, though the focus will surely be on enterprise first. Other than enthusiasts, the general public isn't ready for Win32 apps on a phone, as this article describes the time is right however in my opinion the time is right for modern apps not for Win32 apps.
  • What do you mean with "They already "found" a way"... could you provide any source? I am really curious, thanks.
  • Continuum plus x86 or x64 processor. Again, I'm pretty sure this will be targetting enterprise at first same as HoloLens.
  • Oh and no, I don't have some inside source and I don't work for Microsoft. It's just obvious.
  • What it takes is a phone with an x86 processor. Then what they could do is make sure that win32 would only run when connected to an external display using keyboard and mouse. Now you have a "full" PC while at work and a mobile UI when on the road. This could be an option in the long run as it means that they could run the "full" and completely same Windows on both computers and mobile devices. It means Windows Mobile would go away and that all of its features would have been "snapped up" by big brother. I know, this is only one out of many possible scenarios.
  • None of you people understand about universal apps do you once Microsoft hits that I billion device Mar you will see and understand how powerfull the universal app platform can be you see the 1 billion there talking about is for all devices running win 10 from tablet to phone Xbox to hololens to pc and if they get 1 billion users of win 10 developers won't be able to ignore win 10 anymore and as a developer would you spend your money just to make a app for win 10 pcs or would you spend the same amount and develope for all 1 billion win 10 users. It's not hard to understand Microsoft is using there windows 10 pc userbase and there Xbox userbase to leverage with there tablet and phone uaerbase in other words there is only one user base that matters now windows 10 user base.
  • Yes, the future is Universal apps not Win32.
  • I'm sure some of us do understand idholland. The thing is, I think continuum is great, we need x86 capable phones to bring the uncompromising experience of a pc. The L950 is not expected to have multitasking of universal apps, this blows for anyone who considers themself a power user. Moreover the L950 seems to peddle a mighty similar brand of experience as Windows RT which which dominated by bay trail Intel win8.1 tablets. Don't drink the coolaid until we get the full win10 on the desktop user case. I'm still struggling to find overlap between my mobile and desktop usage cases and therefore can't justify limiting my desktop experience for the continuum cause. The Toshiba encore, dell venue pro etc came out about a year after windows rt, so I'm happy to wait until then before ditching my laptop.
  • Funny thing, I don't think this is for power users as their main computer. I wouldn't want it as my main computer, but it sure would be nice!
  • @Stui83. Why the heck would you want win32 code to run on phones? You can't have win32 code without malware. You will get both. Your better off with ARM and a dock that runs win32 code. As after all the key point is to run win32 apps when docked is it not?
    You're not going to be running any Win32 apps on a phone. It's not going to happen, pretty much all win32 apps are not touch friendly. The only benefit of a Intel soc in a phone is the incorporation of the realsense camera be it rear or a ffc. Beyond that ARM beats it in every single aspect especially in terms of power efficiency.
    Furthermore your better off getting one the maaaaany 7inch tablets that run full windows and using a dock. Plus Some of these tablets have full sd card slots and mini hdmi ports. Not to mention stylus support too.
  • Someone who gets it! Continuum as it is will be ok.  One of those things you get excited about, try one time in a trip maybe and decide you better bring your tablet/laptop in the next one.  
  • I thought wn32 apps will be packaged as Windows Store apps just like Everything else (Android, iOS)... Here a link... http://liliputing.com/2015/05/this-is-how-win32-apps-can-become-windows-...          
  • They found a way to run Win32 Apps on ARM...It was called Windows RT.
  • Very well written, I haven't tried sway yet so I will give it a go when I get home and see what it's all about! Thanks again for a great Saturday read!
  • @mbrdev Thanks and I'm glad you enjoyed it!
  • While Continuum is one of the most intriguing new abilities within Windows 10 Mobile, I honestly give it a 50/50 chance of fizzling out at this point. The idea is that smartphones already do what tablets once did/do, and as multi-core processors and multi-gig RAM infrastructures improve, we are on the cusp of phones that can do what laptops do. The only limi