Smartphone and PC? Microsoft just might pull it off


Microsoft has long desired to create universal Windows—Windows on every device imaginable. After several failed attempts, it’s trying again—this time with , not just Windows Mobile apps.

Microsoft’s technology approach to universal Windows—in fact, to a universal PC where a smartphone transforms into a full PC when connected to large monitors and other periperhals at your desk—looks like it could actually work this time, unlike the whose limitations are too many to recap.

The new horizons of the universal PC

But say the universal PC ambitions work out this time. Does it matter?

I think it does, because both the their current innovation plateaus. You can see that desire to morph in the hybrid tablet/laptop devices (aka 2-in-1s), keyboard-equipped tablets (aka ), , Windows Continuum-based pocketable PCs like , and other experiments that have shown up in the last few years.

) was meant for embedded devices (now called IoT devices), such as package scanners. Microsoft also had Windows Mobile, for personal digital assistants, messaging devices, and other smartphone precursors; it then replaced it with an incompatible operating system for smartphones called Windows Phone (now renamed until Microsoft figures out the universal PC). 

Microsoft is also taking another page from Apple: the adaptable app. lets you create apps that can run on both an iPhone and iPad, choosing the right user interface for the device at hand (that’s what does as well), as well as use capabilities on devices that support them (like cellular connections and the fingerprint scanner) but not on the (usually older) devices that don’t. That’s what also does.

Apple has chosen to keep iOS and MacOS separate, so even though you can develop iOS and MacOS apps from the same Xcode code base, they’re separate, incompatible apps. UWP can run modern Windows apps on both Windows Mobile and Windows 10, bridging smartphone, tablet, and computer. But there are very few UWP apps, and standard Windows apps can’t run on mobile devices. Microsoft’s failure in the smartphone market kept developers from using UWP because, well, why bother?

That’s why Microsoft needed to find a way to have both the standard Windows and standard Windows apps run on mobile devices, meaning ARM-based devices. And that way is supposed to be the coming Windows 10-on-ARM effort, with the first products expected next fall.

It won’t be seamless, however. ARM-based devices won’t be able to run 64-bit standard Windows apps, just 32-bit ones. Microsoft has had a terrible time getting 32-bit and 64-bit apps to work well on 64-bit versions of Windows, and the fact that Windows came in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions only ensured that users avoided the 64-bit version that initially required special hardware and developers avoided 64-bit apps because so few users had 64-bit Windows. Apple handled its 64-bit transition much better, making MacOS “fat,” so it ran 32-bit on 32-bit Macs and 64-bit on 64-bit Macs—and applications were likewise encouraged to be fat to run optimally on either environment.

Microsoft’s bungling of the 64-bit conversion and its suicidal self-restrictions in Windows RT are why I am not fully confident Microsoft will do it right this time. Even though both were obvious failures off the bat to everyone else, Microsoft for years stubbornly pretended everything was fine. Although from Microsoft, it still exists throughout the company and could pop up here again.

Still, Microsoft is taking proven paths on the technology front to universality. That in and of itself is a giant leap forward we should all eagerly watch.