Microsoft Just Nonchalantly Showed Us the Single-Device UI of the Future

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

Phones are getting bigger. Computers, smaller. And according to Microsoft, soon there won’t be any difference in their software at all. It’s a more radical vision than you’d think.

On stage at Microsoft Build today, Joe Belfiore spent just a few minutes introducing a fairly big vision for the future of UI within the company. A little feature in Windows 10 called Continuum,which was introduced months ago, is snowballing as it takes on a greater role in the system. Continuum tells Windows 10 whether you’re using it on a phone, tablet or computer—then, your device adapts its user interface to better suit how you’re using it. If you’re using your finger, the apps UI will be bigger and easier to navigate. If you’re using a mouse, it’ll get finer and more detailed.

For example, the modeling software Maya will change if you switch from a laptop to a tablet:

Microsoft Just Nonchalantly Showed Us the Single-Device UI of the Future

Microsoft Just Nonchalantly Showed Us the Single-Device UI of the Future

We knew about that, and saw earlier this year how other apps would function universally across devices and form factors:

Microsoft Just Nonchalantly Showed Us the Single-Device UI of the Future

But this afternoon, Belfiore announced that Continuum is expanding further. He painted a picture of a future where you only need a single device. That shouldn’t seem like such a huge deal—but it’s cooler than it seems. You can use Bluetooth to run your apps on your phone, but view and use them on a nearby screen and keyboard. Here’s Powerpoint running on a phone, streamed to a nearby screen and keyboard:

Microsoft Just Nonchalantly Showed Us the Single-Device UI of the Future

Microsoft Just Nonchalantly Showed Us the Single-Device UI of the Future

In this vision of the future your phone is, perhaps, your only device. You can pair it with a Bluetooth keyboard, mouse, or screen whenever you need to—but the apps and the functionality of the software will always look the same.

This device could be utterly simple, universally pairing with any screen or keyboard wherever you go to serve as laptop, tablet, or phone when needed. “We believe any screen can be your PC,” he said. “We have a vision that not only the PC can benefit from flexibility and use of input devices and screen sizes—so too can the phone.”

Microsoft Just Nonchalantly Showed Us the Single-Device UI of the Future

This is an idea we’ve seen emerge in earnest this spring. Intel is making a budget HDMI dongle that looks like a USB drive but is actually a tiny computer that can put full Windows 8.1 on any screen. Google is doing a similar thing for Chrome with its Chromebit. These sticks put your computer, essentially, onto a hard drive as big as your thumb. You can take them anywhere and plug them into nearly anything. In a world where screens are ubiquitous, why should you even need a dedicated one? Why not carry the brains of your digital life around with you, and simply plug into the heavy, fragile, expensive screens when you need them?

In a weird way, Microsoft is actually late to this party. But Continuum is still important, since it will provide an operating system necessary to make this single-device paradigm functional.

As Belfiore pointed out, this is the “first step” towards a much bigger project at Microsoft—one that spans all of its devices and all of its software suites. This funny little feature could eventually spawn the universal operating system that brings a single-device future that we’ve seen imagined in films like Her to pass.

For now, we’ll have to wait and see it in action, since hands-on won’t even happen at Build until Thursday. In this case, the future moves slowly.