Your Phone outage highlights flaws with Microsoft's approach to PC companion apps

Your Phone companion
Your Phone companion (Image credit: Windows Central)

In May 2018, Microsoft announced Your Phone – a PC companion that lets you keep your smartphone in sync with your Windows 10 device. The ambitious project mirrors what Apple does between its macOS and iPhone, but with the caveat that Microsoft's vision must work across all Windows 10 PCs, Android, and iOS. While the overall concept of Your Phone is excellent Microsoft's approach has some flaws that keep it from being perfect. Yesterday's cloud outage shows how vulnerable it can be, and the Samsung partnership departs from the original goal.

Phone companions and differing visions

Dell Mobile Connect

Dell Mobile Connect (Image credit: Windows Central)

Microsoft is certainly not the first to attempt a PC-phone companion app. Many PC manufacturers have been making similar apps for a few years now including Dell with its popular Mobile Connect system. Dell's approach relies on Wi-Fi Direct with Bluetooth only involved for initial pairing and reconnecting to the smartphone. Mobile Connect's connection is always local (device to device) with no cloud interference. That connection allows for instant file transfers and even the ability to handles phone calls through the PC letting users keep their Android phone in their pocket.

The downside with Dell's vision is it can only run on modern PCs with the right Bluetooth and Wi-Fi stack. Luckily, Dell makes PCs, so anything after 2018 mostly qualifies. The company can also make a custom driver for their own PCs to make it all work. The app is also a bit more restrictive, requiring Android 6.0 and higher. Still, the beauty of Dell's strategy is Mobile Connect is very fast, reliable, and it can handle SMS, phone calls, notifications, contacts, screen mirroring, and file transfers.

Microsoft's Your Phone, however, is based more around Bluetooth. Because of that, it works on most Windows 10 PCs and any Android or Apple smartphone. The downside is obvious: it's often slow and not nearly as reliable as Dell Mobile Connect.

Microsoft though had the goal of hitting more users than Dell, hence their approach. That's to be commended, but this Samsung partnership turns some of this on its head.

Samsung gets the preferential treatment

It turns out, Microsoft too can play the quality card. Its recent coziness with Samsung and the Note 10 let Your Phone (dubbed 'Link to Windows') works much better than everyone else's Your Phone. Instead of a pure Bluetooth connection, it relies on some form of Wi-Fi connection. Even in our early testing initial feedback it's said it's a massive difference in the experience for the better. As our senior Windows reporter Zac Bowden commented:

I've been using Your Phone for just a couple of hours, and the connection between my Surface Studio and Galaxy Note 10+ has been better than it ever has been on other phones. Notification sync is instant, as is sending messages. In addition to this, the ability to use screen mirroring is functional without the need for Bluetooth.

There's even hope that other Samsung phones may get the same "better" Your Phone experience.

What if you have a phone by OnePlus, LG, Huawei, Xiaomi, etc.? We don't know. For now, however, it looks like there's a two-tier system. Samsung phones get the best; everyone else gets mediocrity.

Your Phone on the Google Play store has over ten million downloads, with an average rating of 4.3 – not bad. Dell Mobile Connect, by contrast, sits at just 500,000 downloads with a lower 4.1 rating. Microsoft's strategy is paying off if you go by usage.

Make a Surface-only Your Phone experience

Microsoft Surface logo

Microsoft Surface logo (Image credit: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

Microsoft controls the entire stack of the Surface. Hardware design, drivers, even the OS, is all up to them. Your Phone is too good of an idea to let it float around the generic Windows experience. Microsoft should have a similar option as Dell offers with its Mobile Connect – a Wi-Fi direct, non-cloud-based performative companion.

The Samsung partnership was a smart move by Microsoft – Samsung makes up a large percentage of Android phones, ensuring the chance for more widespread adoption of Your Phone. But Microsoft should not neglect its Surface brand either. Dell proved you could ship a better version of Your Phone (and it is). And it's one that works with their premium PCs and almost all modern Android phones (and iOS too, but Apple is still very restrictive).

Moreover, what is up with the Microsoft 365 outage that knocked out Your Phone for nearly 14 hours? Should users now expect that their phones may not work if Microsoft's cloud is not working? Again, the beauty of Dell's Mobile Connect is it doesn't rely on external services or servers – it can't go down. That lack of a middleman also means Dell Mobile Connect is very secure as nothing goes to the cloud.

Microsoft has the right idea with Your Phone, but the generic approach and reliance on Bluetooth-only should not be the only way forward. While the improved Samsung Note 10 "Link to Windows" is even better, it still divides the user experience. That's why Microsoft should think of a way to use Wi-Fi direct and deliver a premium phone companion experience on modern PCs. Anything less than that will leave users frustrated and disappointed.

Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central. He is also the head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft since 2007, when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, laptops, next-gen computing, and watches. He has been reviewing laptops since 2015 and is particularly fond of 2-in-1 convertibles, ARM processors, new form factors, and thin-and-light PCs. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics, watched people sleep (for medical purposes!), and ran the projectors at movie theaters because it was fun.