It’s interesting how some tech product features come and go over time. It’s not the first time we’ve had a dockable phone that converts into a desktop replacement while in it’s dock. We’ve had the Motorola Atrix with it’s dual boot Android and Linux WebTop desktop when inserted into its laptop dock or docking cradle. Motorola’s Lapdock also supported a number of other Android phones that had the same capability (include the Droid Bionic, Droid Razr).
More recently, Microsoft’s Lumia 950 with Window Mobile’s Continuum feature tried to bring us the promise of a mobile Windows device that you could dock while not on the go to provide a Windows desktop experience from the same device.
Today’s Samsung Unpacked 2017 event introduced the expected S8 and S8+. It’s an incredibly attractive new flagship device that is most likely going to sell like hotcakes, despite even the disaster that was the Note 7. The curious wildcard feature though is a new feature called DeX that allows you to dock your phone into a docking cradle and use it as a desktop.
Given the lacklustre interest in this capability in previous products so far, what makes Samsung think that this is going to capture our interest now? Or as Engadget asks, “Does anyone want to use a phone as a desktop?”
Apple has been criticized in the press from several points of view (for example) that their recent product releases have not been innovative enough, and they’re no longer pushing the boundaries of what’s currently possible. I came across a comment somewhere (I forgot to bookmark it), that the mobile phone industry in general has reached it’s peak of what’s possible, and to continue growth there needs to be a new revolution to innovate beyond the current form factor of the smartphone as we know it today.
I’ve said many times before that each device form factor has unique benefits and limitations according to its size and user interface. For example, a phone that fits in your pocket it a poor replacement for a desktop computer with a large LCD monitor, full size keyboard and mouse, and the reverse holds true too, a desktop computer is hardly a portable computing device.
The recent rumors and articles (in 2015, in 2016 and Lenovo’s concept phone here and here, and more recently: here, here, and here) about new phones from Samsung and LG possibly coming with folding screens starts to blur what’s possible. What if you have a phone that’s small enough and portable to be a phone (as we know it in the current form factor), but it has a screen that unfolds into something larger, say with a 7″ or larger screen that can be used in place of a tablet? That would certainly shake things up, allowing you to carry a device with a large enough screen to sit down and use it at a desk, but still carry it around in your pocket. I’m really curious and hope these come to market soon.
Things are still not looking good for Microsoft’s attempt to get a foot in the smartphone market. While their FY16Q1 financial results stated their mobile phone revenue fell by 56%, which was ahead of the new Lumia launch, IDC’s latest sales figures have shown Windows Mobile sales dropped 10% for the year. Given the launch of the flagship Lumia 950 models this year that has to hurt.
Worst still, Forbes are predicting a gloomy future for Microsoft’s mobile business for the coming year, predicting that they will cut their losses and pull out of the mobile phone market altogether.
Given the dominance in the market of Android and iOS devices (IDC shows Android has 80% global market share at this point, and even iOS is relatively far behind with 14%), one has to wonder what Microsoft were thinking when they bought Nokia and announced their Windows 10 Mobile plans. If they can come out with a truly revolutionary new product to catch everyone’s attention then maybe they have a chance, but an evolutionary step forward (and a small one at that) like the Lumia 950 models is definitely not the one that people are going to be dropping their Androids for and moving to. It’s just not good enough.
Given Microsoft’s focus on a single, combined version of Windows for all devices, desktop, tablets and phones, Tim Cook, Apple CEO, has said in a recent interview that he believes desktop and mobile operating systems should be separate:
We don’t believe in having one operating system for PC and mobile … We think it subtracts from both, and you don’t get the best experience from either. We’re very much focused on two.
… and I have to believe this too. I can understand from a cost reduction point of view that if you’re developing a mobile OS for phones/tablets and also a desktop OS at the same time, the attraction of merging your development efforts to a single product would be attractive to reduce development costs from shared assets, smaller development team, combined testing efforts etc.
The problem with this approach that Cook mentions, is that a mobile device compared to a desktop (or even laptop device) are such radically different user experiences, that any attempt to combine the two to a single common product is going to be a compromise that is going to impact the ability to capitalize on the key features that differentiate a mobile device from a desktop device and vice versa.
I’ve thought this for a while now seeing Microsoft, in my opinion, struggle to find the right balance of common features across device types with Windows 8 and now Windows 10. And yet, haven’t they already been down this path before with Windows Mobile on smart phones back in the early to mid 2000s? Anyone rememeber trying to use the Start menu on a phone in the early 2000s with a stylus? It was a terrible user experience – worked well on the desktop with a mouse, but translated very pooly to a small screen either touch or pen based. But, Microsoft believes they can still get this right. Uhuh. Call us when you’ve got something worth looking at.