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Microsoft's Continuum For Phones Portends New Computing Paradigm

Somewhat hidden, or at least unduly obscured, in the massive announcement dump from Microsoft's Build conference (goodness, and it's just Day 1) is a feature called Continuum for phones. The actual description of what Continuum does -- a tool that intelligently and dynamically adjusts the way the OS presents apps and windows depending on what input methods and devices are connected -- does not accurately describe why it's potentially an incredibly important piece of the new Windows 10.

It can enable your phone to function as your computer. This concept is nothing new, but for the most part, earlier attempts of this kind just came up short. The phone interface didn't translate to the desktop very well. The phone's CPU and GPU horsepower wasn't up to snuff. There was an insufficient interface between the phone and display. And so on.

The problem that Continuum, and Continuum for phones, solves is the interface issue, and it was a doozy.

In a brief demo, Microsoft's Joe Belfiore showed how Universal Apps in Windows 10 can "flex." He pulled up a USA Today sample and showed how Windows 10 displayed it differently depending on whether he was using a docked tablet compared to a standalone tablet. If you'll pardon the Apple reference (I promise it isn't a dig), it "just worked." It was smooth and simple and elegant.

Next, he connected a Windows Phone to a monitor (via HDMI) to demonstrate the same effect. He also connected the phone to a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, and poof -- there were the phone apps, displayed on the large monitor as if they were desktop apps.

"Any screen can be your PC," he said.

How Microsoft Made It Work

There are two key moves that Microsoft made here to pull this off. First, Windows 10 will work virtually seamlessly across all your screens thanks to a shared binary. This means that the fundamental parts of Windows 10, including Universal Apps, are identical on the desktop, on tablets, on phones and so on. Thus, those apps on your Windows Phone are the same as the apps running on your desktop.

Continuum itself provides the second crucial part, which is the ability for apps to adjust their appearance on the fly based on what device, input and display it detects. When Joe Belfiore connected that phone to that display, the app and OS intelligence simply showed the apps in a way most germane to the connected display.

Your Phone Is Your Computer?

With Continuum and Windows 10, Microsoft has unlocked something that the tech industry is ready to adopt: using your phone as your primary computing device.

There are, however, two issues that astute readers will point to immediately: First, how will phones physically connect to displays? And second, won't your phone's battery be quickly sucked dry by the demands of a connected display?

At Mobile World Congress in March, the MHL Consortium was pressing hard on this exact idea. The group showed how phones can connect to displays and input devices via the USB Type-C connector. In addition to the use of what will eventually become a widely-used if not essentially ubiquitous connector in Type-C, the USB 3.1 spec's Power Delivery capabilities would allow the display to actually charge the connected phone's battery rather than drain it.

At tomorrow's keynote, we sincerely hope that Microsoft will announce a new flagship Lumia phone that boasts powerful specs and a Type-C connector.

(Unless and until that happens, there are other ways to connect a smartphone to an external display via an adapter. We believe that Microsoft's demo used such a solution to connect the phone to that monitor via HDMI.)

The dumb clamshell

What Windows 10 and Continuum, along with devices sporting USB Type-C bring, is a new paradigm of computing. At MWC, the MHL Consortium went as far as showing mockups of possible products one could buy -- for example, a "dumb" clamshell laptop to which you could connect your smartphone.

There are many areas in the world where users can only afford one computing device. In some cases, as companies such as Lenovo have pointed out to us, that would be a tablet with LTE capabilities for VoIP calling. But with this model, another option is going all out on an expensive flagship phone and simply using that for all your computing needs. All you would need is the right peripherals, such as the aforementioned "dumb" clamshell laptop or a monitor and mouse/keyboard.

Seth Colaner is the News Director at Tom's Hardware. Follow him on Twitter@SethColaner. Follow us @tomshardware, on Facebook and on Google+.