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Microsoft’s mobile strategy: Create Windows-like app ‘experiences’ for smartphones

Windows watchers worried what would become of Microsoft after a sweeping reorganization that emphasized “experiences,” rather than Windows. As Microsoft kicks off its Build developer conference in Seattle on Monday, we now have a better idea: Microsoft is investing in Windows experiences on mobile devices, with a new app called Your Phone; a migration of Windows 10’s Timeline productivity feature to phones; and an update to its launcher app for enterprises.

While Microsoft is also expected to discuss some of the features of its next Windows 10 update (code-named “Redstone 5”) at Build, the company indicated that it will be emphasizing cross-platform apps instead. Microsoft will discuss some of these in a Tuesday presentation by Joe Belfiore, who leads Windows “experiences” as the corporate vice president in the Operating Systems Group at Microsoft.

The idea, Belfiore said in a briefing in advance of the show, was that Microsoft needs to know what users are working on, across any device. “Whether you look at a Word doc on Android, iOS, or Windows, is irrelevant,” Belfiore said.

Belfiore was talking about Timeline, the feature that tracks your work in the Office apps or Edge, recording your activity in what Microsoft calls the Microsoft Graph. But Belfiore could have been talking about any hardware platform. Microsoft sounds like it wants to elevate Microsoft mobile applications to the level of importance of a PC—making the actual hardware, and operating system, irrelevant.

Why this matters: After the demise of Windows phones, the reorganization that seemingly downplayed Windows was chewed over by analysts and fans alike. A developer conference that continues to de-emphasize Windows won’t be well-received by fans. Still, Microsoft seems to be beefing up its mobile apps for iOS and Android, projecting “Windows” onto platforms Microsoft doesn’t intrinsically own. Two years ago, we suggested that Microsoft’s “Plan C” for mobile phones was to seed Microsoft apps and services everywhere it could, and let a garden grow. That future is coming to pass.

surface windows 10 timeline Gordon Ung/Rob Schultz/IDG

Timeline, here shown on a Windows PC, will be coming to phones. 

Your Phone ties your PC to your smartphone

Microsoft isn’t positioning the new experiences as part of Windows, but as a core component of Microsoft 365, a business solution that includes Windows, Office 365 and a mobile device management solution. It’s a subscription service for enterprises and educators that Microsoft launched last year, tying together the nearly 700 million Windows 10 devices and the 135 million commercial users that use Office 365.  Expect Microsoft to characterize these as what it calls “the intelligent edge,” complementing the “intelligent cloud” of Azure and other enterprise services. Microsoft wants to unite everything: cloud, device, business, consumer. 

img 20180508 085128 Mark Hachman / IDG

Ths is how the Your Phone app will work, showing you your phone’s messages and notifications. 

The new Your Phone app sounds like one of the first manifestations of that vision. Recall that Microsoft tried, and failed, to make phones into PCs with Continuum, which projected the phone’s Windows 10 Mobile OS and apps onto a monitor. With recent versions of Windows 10, Microsoft has gone the other way: You can now reply to texts sent your phone from your PC. 

With Your Phone, a UWP app, users will have “a window into a user’s phone right from their PC,” allowing them to text from their phone, share photos, and view notifications, representatives said, letting them work without distraction from their phone. Sharing photos would be a new capability for the Windows platform (though photos snapped with a phone, and automatically uploaded to OneDrive, are already viewable with the Windows 10 Photos app moments later).

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