Windows 10 Continuum: Turn Your Phone Into a PC

It pushes out the best display for your device.

Windows 10
Windows 10. Courtesy Microsoft

Over the past month or so, I've been going over some of the glitzy new stuff in Microsoft's next-generation operating system, like Hello, for biometric authentication; Surface Hub, designed for business productivity; Cortana, the digital assistant that can help you find stuff around town or on the Web; and HoloLens, one of the first truly useful holographic display systems.

That tour continues today with Continuum, which is an effort to make Windows 10 as useful as possible across all kinds of devices, whether it's a desktop, laptop, tablet or phone.

The basic idea behind Continuum is that Windows 10 will sense what kind of device you're using, and push out the best display for that device. So if you're using Windows 10 on a Surface 3 tablet with a keyboard and mouse plugged in, it defaults to desktop mode. That means it presents a screen that's best for a mouse and keyboard combination.

If you remove the keyboard and mouse, Continuum will automatically switch to touch-first mode, adding a graphic user interface (GUI) similar to that found on Windows 8/8.1. The key is that you don't have to do anything; Continuum knows what you need, and provides it for you.

Windows Phone Magic

Continuum goes further, though, especially with Windows 10 on a Windows Phone. If you add a keyboard, mouse and external display, it scales to fill the screen properly. Think about that for a minute: if you're using a phone and need to use it more like a desktop or laptop, just plug in some external hardware and bam!

You've got a PC in moments.

At a demo at one of its recent conferences, Microsoft showed this capability in a real-world scenario. In it, the presenter hooked up the peripherals -- display, mouse, keyboard -- to his Windows 10 phone. On the phone, he had Microsoft Excel (a spreadsheet program that's part of the Office suite) open.

On the phone, it looked like Excel would look on a phone -- much smaller, fewer menu options, etc. This is, of course, necessary, since there's so much less real estate on a phone. But on the external monitor, Excel expanded, looking like it should on a much larger display. The presenter then worked on Excel with the mouse and keyboard, but it was all still coming from the phone.

Apple Can't Do It

It's actually pretty remarkable, when you think about it: using any Windows Store app on any Windows 10 device. That's something you can't do, for example, on Macs. When you switch from an iPhone to a MacBook Pro, for example, you're moving from iOS, the touch-based operating system used for iPhones and iPads, to OS X, the separate -- and much different -- desktop/laptop operating system. They don't work nearly the same way.

There are some warnings, of course. First is that there are likely to be some bugs in the system at first. This is complicated technology, and will take awhile to shake out (as it will for Windows 10 in general). In other words, be patient.

Secondly, there aren't a ton of apps available in the Windows Store yet, at least compared to what's available for iPhones and Android phones in their respective stores.

But that may be changing, especially as Windows 10 gains market share and developers start seeing the ability to make some money creating apps for it. Microsoft undoubtedly hopes to lure them with the ease of creating one program for all Windows 10 devices, rather than separate ones for different operating systems.

How Useful?

One question is how useful Continuum will be, especially for phones. I think it'll be very nice for laptops, desktops and tablets -- I often move from one to the other while I'm working, and having Windows 10 switch to the best GUI for what I'm doing will be awesome. But I can't imagine many situations in which I'd want to plug my phone into a desktop monitor, then plug in a mouse and keyboard.

If I'm doing all that anyway, why wouldn't I just use that desktop, which will in all likelihood be much faster?

I guess if you don't do a lot of work that requires a beefy desktop or laptop very often, and don't want to buy one, you could save a bundle by just buying those peripherals and plugging in your phone when you have to get that kind of work done.

Regardless, it's clear that Microsoft has put a lot of thought and work into this. I can't wait for Windows 10 to get here and try it out.