Last week, we were doing some jawing on the Pocketnow Weekly podcast, debating the merits and pitfalls of the Surface RT. While we’ve done that on almost every episode of the Weekly since the release of Microsoft’s first home-sourced tablet PC, we got more in-depth than usual on last week’s episode and I encourage you to check it out.
One of the topics we chewed over was that of the Surface RT’s actual usability. I remarked that the Surface had so far proven to me more of a novelty than a productivity-enhancer. Despite my feeling that it is indeed a device from the future, I’ve recently learned that it’s not the device I turn to when I need to get work done quickly.
Now, that’s partly because I just haven’t used it enough, and it’s partly because Windows 8 still needs some time in the oven to catch up with its more-established tablet competitors. But over the past few days, I’ve realized there’s another component that would make using the Surface far more appealing: integration with my smartphone.
Longtime readers will recall that I jumped platforms several weeks back, switching my daily driver from Android to Windows Phone in fulfillment of a pledge that I’d buy the Nokia Lumia 920 before I bought an iPhone 5. While that transition has been full of drama of all varieties, it’s been largely a positive experience, with the exception of something I’ll refer to as the tablet-smartphone gulf.
Changing to a different daily-driver hasn’t stripped me of devices on other platforms. I still carry a Galaxy Note II or a Droid RAZR M at times, mainly to assist with mapping-related problems and to serve as music players as I await the Windows Phone versions of Spotify and Pandora. And my tablet-computing needs are served primarily by my “best friend,” the Nexus 7.
So I’m still very much plugged in to the Google ecosystem when I need to be. And though it’s not perfect, it is wonderful in one very important respect: when I use these devices together, they work together. Their integration is by no means seamless, but actions on the phone bring about commensurate reactions on the tablet, and vice-versa. For example: my browsing history on Chrome is synced across my Google devices– and across my desktop, as well. Saving a site as a bookmark on my RAZR M means I can access the bookmark from any other device running Chrome. I can even browse my web history from any of my synced devices.
That’s in addition to Google Now, which in addition to being one of the most futuristic mobile-tech features I’ve encountered, also leverages the power of the users’ Google accounts to gather and dispense information from and to all of a user’s various devices. This means that route information soaked up by my Nexus 4 in the morning can be used to display a transit-time-to-home card in my Nexus 7′s notification bar later that afternoon.
It’s this kind of integration that makes the dream of the “continuous client” seem much closer at hand. It gives me a glimpse of the mythical uninterrupted workflow that futuristic advertising videos have shown us for ages: the notion that you can start a browsing session on your tablet in your living room, then seamlessly transfer that experience to your mobile phone so you can continue reading as you head out the door.
As impressive as this is, it’s only scratching the surface of the wonders that will evolve from tablet-phone integration in the future. HP was the first, most visible pioneer in this space with the touch-to-share abilities built into its aborted TouchPad tablet. Using an NFC-like technology called Touch To Share, users could tap a Pre3 smartphone to a TouchPad tablet and transfer active browser sessions between the two. That functionality has been replicated -and its utility surpassed- by Google with the Chrome sync feature mentioned above, but HP also provided a bonus level of synchronization between devices: a special Bluetooth link that allowed phone calls and text messages received on the phone to be forwarded to the tablet. Had it not abandoned the development of its webOS hardware and software, HP might by now have developed even deeper levels of tablet-smartphone integration.
It’s that seamless bond between handheld and tablet, that blurring of the line between device categories, that makes technology more useful while also ushering in the futuristic world of tomorrow that I think the Surface RT represents. So why doesn’t the Surface RT play nice (or at all) with my Lumia? Put more plainly: Why doesn’t my Windows 8 tablet talk to my Windows Phone 8 smartphone?
When Microsoft unveiled its new mobile OS back in June, Joe Belfiore said that “The future of Windows 8 is a ‘shared core’ between Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8.” We’re well-acquainted with the kernel swap that took place between Windows Phone versions 7 and 8 to port the platform into the same framework as its desktop counterpart, but PCWorld saw more in the comment, opining in a piece written at the time that “For users, this integration means that apps that work on Windows phones will also work on desktop PCs and tablets, and they will find it easier to share content and apps seamlessly between their Windows Phone and their Windows tablet or desktop PC.”
We had similar hopes at the time, but they haven’t manifested. Now, we’re not denying the bevy of cloud-based options that exist across most ecosystems here. Of course you can sync OneNote across your tablet PC and your Windows Phone, and you can do the same for specific kinds of content with third party apps like Evernote. But where’s the core-level functionality? The browser syncing across form factors? The Bluetooth-delivered SMS messages and voice tunnel? The tap-device-to-X features?
Admittedly, this is less an indictment of Microsoft than a complaint about the sluggish nature of the entire space. No tablet-smartphone pair has the kind of functionality that we’re calling overdue. But given that reality, shouldn’t Microsoft be the ones taking point? After all, the folks in Redmond are the ones with the most ground to make up in market share, and thus, the biggest incentive to over-deliver on features. In a world where tablets and smartphones are increasingly eroding the dominance of the traditional PC, why are we going backward? And how can we reverse that trend, building once again on sharing technologies introduced ages ago with webOS?
One thing’s for sure: if Microsoft doesn’t do it, someone will. It might be Samsung with its ATIV or Galaxy brands, Apple with the iPhone/iPad, Google with new Nexus enhancements, or some yet-to-be-named player from left field. Someone who feels strongly, as I do, that our smartphones and tablets were meant to work closely together. More closely than they currently do. Considering the strong visual bond between Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 and Microsoft’s strong interest in standing out from the competition, it seems only natural that Windows products be the ones to lead us into this overdue future.
Windows Phone 7/8 quote source: PCWorld