Mobile device manufacturers have been quick to offer smartphone-to-PC systems, but do we really need them? I weigh in!

When Microsoft first revealed its Continuum features aboard the Lumia 950 and 950 XL, I was quite smitten. Given the fact that Windows Mobile (RIP) was famous for running well on low-end hardware, I naturally presumed that Continuum would be an excellent way to deliver a PC-like experience to those of us with a limited budget for just (let’s say) one smartphone. After all, Continuum had (or has?) the backing of Microsoft’s Windows Store and some of the more ubiquitous features one might find on a low-end Windows laptop, making it an excellent candidate for a smartphone-to-PC system.

Unfortunately, Windows Mobile didn’t pan out well for Microsoft – and the Redmond firm instead elected to style Continuum as the mechanism wherein one could change a hybrid Windows device from tablet mode to a laptop and back again. Some devices such as the HP Elite X3 shipped with the intention to bring Continuum to the working world, yet such products haven’t typically been aimed at general consumers.

Then, in February this year, Samsung broke headlines for its own such take on Continuum – DeX. Similarly to Microsoft’s earlier efforts, DeX provided a docking system for owners of the Samsung Galaxy S8 to transition their mobile device from a smartphone into a hyper-portable PC. With access to many Android apps, the system looked like a logical way to bring PC functionality to smartphone owners everywhere.

However, the launch of DeX has – up until now – been confined to Samsung’s premium offerings such as the Galaxy S8 and Samsung Galaxy Note 8; meaning that anyone wanting to get onboard with this functionality would have to first break the price barrier to acquire either of Samsung’s flagship devices and then fork out the additional cash for a DeX dock – never mind a display, keyboard, nor mouse.

Huawei was the most recent entrant into this space with yesterday’s reveal of EMUI Desktop – a system which, similarly to DeX or Continuum, can transition one’s Huawei Mate 10 or Mate 10 Pro into a desktop Android PC.

Perhaps one factor Huawei took successful cognizance of is the fact that consumers may not be as willing to dole out cash for additional hardware, such as a dock – and to my personal relief, EMUI Desktop works through a single HDMI to USB Type-C cable rather than a docking station. Another – perhaps more rounded – idea debuts in the sense that Mate 10 owners can use their device as a mobile trackpad rather than leaving it to serve lip service on a workbench.

continuum smartphone-to-pc

Commonality

Continuum, DeX, and EMUI Desktop all echo the same tune, and one that is apparently needed in the consumer technology industry; a means to shatter some of the barriers that prevent smartphones from serving just as well as entry-level desktop PCs.

Android and Windows Mobile both have commonality in the sense that both operating systems are quite versatile, and are capable of providing both a great mobile platform and a fledgling desktop experience to boot. Yet, the cemented nature of the former and novelty factor of the latter tend to make both consumers wary of using such a system as their go-to, one-size-fits-all device. After all, one needn’t really spend more than R5000 ZAR on a good phone, nor R5000 on a decent laptop.

The arrival of each of these offerings – in addition to other miscellaneous products that have attempted to break the mobile and desktop barrier – signals something I feel more smart device manufacturers should take cognizance of; that in mobile-first economies such as South Africa, there can be a massive need for one’s smartphone to sport additional functionality that can bridge new divides.

Up until now, the logic behind Dex, Continuum, or EMUI Desktop seems to be the sense that if smartphones are both powerful and expensive, they needn’t just be smartphones. However, by appealing to a higher market demographic, I’m left to feel that manufacturers offer these young lambs up for slaughter by appealing to market forces that probably already have an equitable laptop or desktop PC and either don’t need a stymied experience, or might only purchase such a system for novelty value.

huawei emui desktop

Real potential?

That’s not to imply Dex, Continuum, nor EMUI Desktop are unusable or unwarranted – in fact, I would argue that as time has gone on each system shows more and more promise; and the fact that manufacturers are beginning to focus on the development of AI and digital assistants means that one may be able to get far more done in far less time.

To pivot back to home, one of the key frustrations I share with South Africans is the sense that the price tag of owning a mobile device along with a suitable data plan can often derail one’s objective of purchasing other smart devices – quite simply, one can often find oneself juggling between owning an equitable PC and mobile device; and many consumers in South Africa forego the former in entirety to live on the latter.

There remains massive potential for manufacturers to develop smartphone-to-PC systems, wherein one could have a smartphone take the form of a desktop PC through a dock or cable. Yet the sensitivity of these options remains lackluster in a country where one can all too easily drool over a flagship smartphone and then lower one’s expectations in line with one’s wallet.

Where cheap smartphones are getting better, good smartphones are getting cheaper – and it needn’t, nor shouldn’t be long until manufacturers realize that smartphone-to-PC systems need not be a feature locked to an unattainable realm of the market. Rather, by aiming such features at the mid-range of the market, manufacturers might be able to develop far more cunning offerings that sell in higher volumes.

google assistant chromebooks

Other predators exist

If smartphone manufacturers don’t attune their strategy in this regard, I feel it need be only a matter of time before other offerings present themselves. The arrival of Android app support on Google’s fledgling Chrome OS ecosystem (and a potential redesign, to boot) may put affordable PC access in the hands of many South Africans, if not consumers around the world.

Another contender is Microsoft, who has similarly released Windows 10 S – and while that offering may be limited to the expensive Surface Laptop for now, there remains potential for a fleet of well-priced Windows 10 S laptop to capture a good portion of the market. Just ask Americans what happened after Chrome OS took a swipe at Apple’s MacBooks.

In the end, smartphone-to-PC systems do – in my opinion – remain a frustrating novelty feature that could unlock real value on mobile-first countries.

Aimed at marketplaces where those who can afford high-end phones likely already have a desktop, and in other regions where purchasing a high-end phone might preclude spending even more on a still-developing PC experience, it’s perhaps evident to say we may not truly need DeX, Continuum, or EMUI Desktop in their present forms – yet greater potential lurks just around the corner.

Have your say!

I want to hear your thoughts – do you believe offerings such as Continuum, DeX, or EMUI Desktop should stay or go? Would you be willing to purchase docks and additional equipment to use a smartphone-to-PC system? Be sure to let me know your opinion on Twitter – @bryansmithSA!