Way back when, Steve Ballmer talked about "Three screens and the cloud". With its latest tools, Microsoft has finally delivered on that vision.
How can you have a mobile ecosystem without a mobile device? That's the question Microsoft found itself having to answer when it cancelled Windows 10 Mobile and drew a line under its Nokia acquisition. Was it time to surrender mobile users to Apple and to Google, or was it time to find another way?
At heart, Microsoft is a platform company. It understands how to create platforms to build businesses and capture users — an understanding that led it to do two things. First, it doubled down on its own mobile apps, making them first-class citizens in the iOS and Android stores. Second, it began to build integration points into both mobile operating systems, and into its consumer and enterprise cloud services.
While Apple's commitment to controlling the iOS user experience limits what can be done to link it to Windows, Android's more open approach has allowed Microsoft to go a lot further in merging the two platforms. With Android phones on sale in Microsoft's own stores, it's clear that it has become an important beachhead in Redmond's new approach to the mobile world.
The most visible aspect of Microsoft's Android strategy is the Microsoft Launcher. Originally developed in its internal Garage incubator, it's a replacement for the default Android launchers with three different views of your device. The first is the traditional home screen, with selected apps and folders, and support for Android's widgets. That's linked to a scrolling view of all your installed apps, somewhat reminiscent of the one used by Windows Phone. Finally there's a card-based view of your calendar, your mail, and other at-a-glance information, including the Windows Timeline view of documents and web pages you've opened on any of your devices.
It's a useful app, with rotating wallpapers powered by Bing. Support for key Microsoft tools like Sticky Notes and Office make it an important alternative to other launchers. It might not be the old Windows 10 Mobile user interface, but it does share the same 'get things done quickly' ethos, with much of what you previously had to do in apps available in its feed.
That feed of information from apps on your PC, on your phone, and in the cloud, is the heart of the Microsoft Launcher. Building on its earlier PC/phone integration experiments, Launcher goes well beyond simply giving you a Microsoft-focused application experience. Instead, it builds on the infrastructure Microsoft has built for Office 365 and the rest of its cloud products to bring your productivity tools to your phone and to wherever you are.
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The key to Microsoft's mobile strategy is Project Rome, a set of APIs that expose the Microsoft Graph to iOS and Android. It's used to link mobile versions of Edge to the Windows Timeline, and powers the Continue on PC sharing tool on iOS. Inheriting much of Microsoft's history of device-to-device sharing (as far back as Live Mesh), Project Rome simplifies transferring context from device to device and app to app. If you're using Office 365, you'll find that, thanks to Project Rome, your recent documents list is available in the mobile versions of the Office tools, and you can pick up right where you left off.
One of the more important Project Rome-based tools is Windows 10's Your Phone tool. Intended to bring your phone experience to your desktop PC, it's currently a basic tool for sharing SMS messages and photographs from phone to PC with support for recent Android devices. One advantage of Microsoft's Your Phone is that you don't need a physical connection, or even Bluetooth. All you need is wi-fi, so you can use it anywhere your PC and phone have a connection.
Once you've linked a phone to Windows 10, using your Microsoft account details, you're prompted to send an SMS with a link to your device. This downloads the Your Phone Companion app from the Play Store. Log in with the same Microsoft account, and the two devices are connected. Currently tabs provide access to your SMS messages and your photos.
For a simple tool, it's surprisingly useful. The ability to read SMS messages alongside your email, replying with a real keyboard rather than a touch-screen keeps you from being distracted. You can check a text from your bank without getting distracted and playing a round or two of Candy Crush, and then taking an hour or so to get back into your workflow. Similarly, the ability to copy a picture from your phone and drop it straight into a document is more useful than you might have thought. The only drawback is its limited access, as Your Phone only handles the last 25 photos you've taken.
Microsoft has big ambitions for Your Phone. One feature it has already teased is 'screen mirroring'. Using this, you'll be able to see your phone's screen on your PC's screen, allowing you to control apps directly. While developers will find it a useful tool for testing new apps, it'll also ensure you can access mobile-only apps like banking or travel tools directly. If you need to use biometric authentication, you'll pick up your phone, log in, and then access apps on your desktop.
If you're in the Windows Insider program, have a Surface Go, and one of four models of Samsung phone, you can now try out screen mirroring. The preview requires support for Bluetooth with Low Energy Peripheral mode, so not all PCs will be able to use it. It's unclear whether Microsoft will support other connection options in future, as this mode is only available in Bluetooth 4.1 and later and must be enabled by device vendors. In the post announcing the preview, Microsoft did indicate it would be bringing it to other phones and more Surface devices.
Screenshots on the Windows Blog show screen mirroring running as a new tab in the Your Phone app, with the entire Android screen available. Apps can be opened with your mouse, and you can use your keyboard to answer messages or post to social media.
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If you've got a recent Dell Windows 10 device you can get a feel for how Your Phone might evolve with Dell's own Mobile Connect app. This uses Bluetooth to link PC and phone, but already supports screen mirroring and file transfer. It's not as flexible as Your Phone promises to be, but can help bridge the gap between PC and Android (it also supports iOS, but only for basic notifications).
Your Phone is clearly a work in progress, but it's one that seems to have a significant push behind it. While Apple's locked-down security model means you'll never get the same access on iPhones and iPads as on Android, you'll still get some integration through Continue on PC, OneDrive support in Office, and with Timeline support in Microsoft's own mobile version of its Edge browser.
The combination of Your Phone and Microsoft Launcher is an important one for Microsoft. With no mobile platform of its own, piggybacking on Android is an essential move, as is making the integration between PC, cloud and phone as simple as possible. Technologies like Project Rome are key, as they drive the now cross-platform Windows Timeline, and link the Microsoft Graph to apps across all your devices.
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