The Case for Continuum - err... is there one?

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In my editorial introducing Continuum three months ago, I took a few guesses as to what this technology might bring to Windows 10 Mobile and how it would work, but I still wanted to 'notch down the hype' a bit, describing Continuum as a 'niche' product. Below, I open up a bit more and express a few doubts - will Continuum provide enough reason on its own to 'save' Windows 10 Mobile?

Continuum in action

From my earlier article:

Far better to have phone hardware that can drive two displays in the first place. So the phone screen stays the phone screen, while universal applications that get launched while 'docked' get to use the large connected display - this is Continuum for phones. The promo video below shows a phone 'connected' wirelessly to a keyboard and monitor, but it's my understanding that Continuum will require a (long) physical cable, either USB Type-C to HDMI or to a dedicated hub like 'Munchkin', leaked here.

Also needed then is a processor that supports dual displays, each likely to be different resolution. In the chipset world this means Snapdragon 805/808/810, at least in the current Qualcomm line-up. And, somewhat obviously, no current Windows Phone hardware uses these chips. Plus, over and over again, Microsoft has emphasised that 'new phones' would be needed for Continuum....

....The communications to keyboard and mouse can both be standard Bluetooth, of course, this came in with Windows Phone 8.1 Update 2, since the data requirements aren't too onerous. One might then ask what would be the point of the aforementioned (codename) 'Munchkin' hub, but this will be so that a standard USB Type-C cable can be used, with the HDMI part being taken out to the monitor. So, for example, for walk-in desks, you won't have to carry around a 2 metre HDMI lead all the time. Plus a hub would help with non-Bluetooth mice and keyboards and would also help top-up the charge in the Windows 10 Mobile phone.

So there's my best guess at how it will all work. You will need a new phone, but with good reason.

I also wanted to notch down the hype slightly. With Continuum being a fairly high profile selling point for Windows 10 Mobile, it's worth mentioning that (in terms of sales, at least, if not column inches!) the vast majority of handsets sold from this Autumn onwards will be budget devices for consumers (think Lumia 640/650/etc.) and budget phablets for enterprise (think Lumia 640 XL and beyond). Absolutely none of these will be compatible with Continuum, which is essentially a 'hero' feature and does look pretty good on feature lists. Just be aware that Windows 10 Mobile does not equate to 'can use Continuum'!

Through all of this Continuum nirvana, the nagging question remains though: "Who exactly is going to want or use any of this?"

One obvious sidestepping response is "Never mind that, isn't it cool?!" And indeed it's very clever, having one OS on a phone drive two displays in two form factors, all without breaking sweat, and providing a good experience on both devices (i.e. phone and large monitor). It's a geek's dream, an enthusiast's fantasy, but who's going to use it in the real world? Let's imagine a few possible scenarios.

The road warrior

The obvious one, shown off in the various promos (and, no doubt also next Tuesday), is that a businessman (or woman, of course, but I'll stick to one gender for my example), equipped with a Windows 10 Mobile handset such as the Lumia 950, heads into a hotel on a trip, sits down in front of the room TV, gets out his dock, HDMI cable, Type C USB cable, keyboard and mouse, and then connects it all together. Within 5 minutes there's a working Windows 10 workstation, with the phone doing its phone bits and yet also driving Office and Outlook on the big TV. 

But hang on a minute. Are we really saying that this road warrior is on a trip, away from base, without a laptop or Surface Pro or similar? Is his luggage so constrained that all he could fit into his manbag or briefcase was a the Continuum dock and cables? Was he really relying on the hotel TV being fully operational and not having its HDMI ports blocked or damaged? Yes, being able to hook up to a room TV is cool and maybe there are some tasks which need a 40" screen, but surely he's going to have a laptop or similar with him as well? Surely the laptop/Surface will be the 'instant on' go-to solution to getting stuff done, in the restaurant, on the train and all the other places where there isn't that huge, spare display? Why would he bother with Windows 10 Mobile's Continuum, in that case?

The family man

Another example quoted back when Continuum was launched - a family is on holiday and arrives at an apartment. The small kids, naturally, need entertaining, so the mum or dad breaks out their Miracast adapter, plugs it into an HDMI port on the apartment TV, then uses their new Lumia 950 XL to stream Netflix or YouTube or similar, putting on a movie or show, while the parent uses the smaller screen to check email and other more serious stuff.

It sounds idyllic and, just as with the businessman example, is do-able, but in the real world the apartment wifi will be of limited bandwidth, the kids (we're talking 3-10 year olds, anyone older will have their own phones, etc.) will fight over which show to watch and then get bored every five minutes and want to keep switching content, and the mum or dad will feel very constrained trying to do much on the phone beyond what they normally do. Then the kids will want to play games, meaning that they'll need control over the physical phone as well. Having multiple people 'fight' over applications and functions all running on the one device doesn't seem very viable in a real world family environment. 

The small business with mobile workforce

What about a business where most of the staff are mobile? Perhaps salesman or technicians? The idea could then be that there are a handful of Continuum docks, displays, keyboards and mice already set up back at base, then when staff do pass through they can plug in their new Lumias and work with applications on the big screen. This pass-through workstation approach does seem the most likely of the various scenarios on this page. There are lots of businesses which might fit the bill, mind you, especially if they've already decided to double down on Windows 10, Office and Outlook. 

The consumer

I'm struggling to think of why a typical home user might use Continuum, beyond simple media streaming via Miracast, in which case you could do that already with Windows Phone. I took a few 'normal' phone users, explained the concept and practicalities, and then asked them what they thought of Continuum for Windows 10 Mobile. The overwhelming response was a blank look, i.e "Why would I want to do that?"

In a world where there's a need for media consumption, for game playing, for mobile productivity, there are already a mountain of other less restrictive (in terms of platform) options, from e-readers to mini-tablets to full size tablets to laptops to hybrids to phablets to games consoles.

So who then?

If this technology is heralded as being the saviour of the platform then I think a few people might be disappointed. I do still think there's a place for Windows 10 Mobile (otherwise I wouldn't be writing for AAWP), but the reason for someone or some company buying into it needs to be just as much for the platform commonality with Windows 10, for the interface and applications, for the flagship hardware that arguably exceeds what's available elsewhere, and not for Continuum, an elegant technological solution to a problem that not very many people or companies have.

Comments and data points welcomed though - what use cases can you think of for Continuum on Windows 10 Mobile?