Tomorrow’s laptop will work more like your phone — and you’re going to love it

For a moment, imagine that you live in a technological utopia. Not one with flying cars and holograms, but one that could exist using only the tech you already own right now.

Imagine if the phone you check social media on when you wake was seamlessly integrated with the laptop you use at home, as well as the desktop PC you use at the office. Imagine if they all ran the same apps, shared the same files, and held the same data. You could answer a phone call or text on whichever you wanted, and could control them all remotely with the press of a button. Even the voice assistant you call to while cooking dinner could be plugged into the same system.

That’s not the world we live in today — but Google, Apple, and Microsoft are doing their best to create it. The fragmented worlds of mobile and desktop operating systems must be unified, and when they are, it’ll be a watershed moment in computing.

Good news: That moment’s not as distant as you may think.

A responsive, unified operating system

Today, getting your phone and your laptop to be friends is like forcing a conversation between people who speak different languages, a topic of discussion when we spoke to Trond Wuellner recently. He’s a project manager on Google’s Pixelbook, a 2-in-1 laptop that tries to bridge the gap between desktop and mobile.

“Our relationship with computing fundamentally changed when phones became the first go-to device.”

“In a large way, laptops and that form factor haven’t gone through a major evolution in 25 years,” Wuellner told Digital Trends. “They’re fundamentally the same kind of feel as they were then. The reality of how people are actually using computers is just very different today.”

Wuellner’s correct. Mobile operating systems and desktop operating systems are not cut from the same cloth; one was designed for touch, one for a mouse and keyboard.

“Our relationship with computing fundamentally changed when phones became the first go-to device everybody grabs in the morning,” says Wuellner. “As a result, what is happening is the relationship with the software and the experiences and the applications that people go to first have evolved as well. No longer is that desktop-installed application or “program” the first way you think about computers. It’s now the mobile apps.”

That may be true, but it’s not as easy as porting mobile apps to a laptop or strapping a keyboard onto a tablet. Products like the iPad Pro, Surface Pro, and Pixelbook have tried that, and none have held up as a truly unified device.

What we need is a complete reset — an operating system built from the ground up for multiple devices and form factors. It needs to be flexible and contextual in a way that the current devices aren’t. It’d need to function fluidly regardless of what kind of computer or input devices you use with it.

In fact, it might look something like Windows 8.

Failing toward the future

Apple and Google have been sidestepping the problem for years by focusing on their own segmented product lines, but in 2012, Microsoft tackled it head on. The ill-fated experiment may not have achieved much success, but it was a recognition of the problem and a clear swing at solving it.

The best web experiences were redesigned from the ground up to work well on mobile and desktop simultaneously.

“Windows 8 shatters perceptions of what a PC now really is,” said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at its launch in 2012. “We’ve truly reimagined Windows and kicked off a new era for Microsoft. It’ll deliver a no-compromise experience.”

Microsoft imagined a future where every device had touch capabilities, and one where no one would miss the traditional interfaces of Windows 7. Unfortunately, it was a bit ahead of its time. Desktop users didn’t see any benefit to relearning everything they’d ever known about Windows, and while it looked the same across mobile and desktop, it didn’t quite work like a single operating system.

Windows 8 didn’t go far enough. There is, however, another source of innovation that’s enjoyed far more success. The web.

Windows 8 was a complete refresh of the desktop interface, emphasizing large touch-friendly icons and hiding elements people were more familiar with.

Rewind a half-decade and websites were mostly static. Pull up your favorite site on a 4-inch smartphone, and you were stuck zooming in and poking with frustration at unresponsive links. Pull that same website up on your 28-inch monitor, and you’d find yourself staring at gobs of blank space.

Since then, developers have found ways to translate the desktop web experience into something that makes sense for touch-based controls without sacrificing usefulness on large desktop displays. Websites are built to know what kind of device you’re using and adjust accordingly. The best web experiences were redesigned from the ground up to work well on mobile and desktop simultaneously. That’s the web of today, and it’s also a blueprint for the future of computers as a whole.

Microsoft and Apple have tricks up their sleeves

At Build 2018, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella spent a lot of time talking about the current reality of our need for a unified operating system, as well as what the company was doing to solve the problem.

“We need to up-level even our concept of what an operating system is.”

“In a single day, you’re using multiple devices, you’re at multiple locations working with multiple people, and interacting using multiple senses,” said Nadella in his opening keynote. “That’s the world we already live in. We need an operating system, we need a platform, that abstracts the hardware at that level — that creates an app model at that level. Single devices remain important, and will remain important. But this meta-orchestration is what we need to do. We need to up-level even our concept of what an operating system is.”

Microsoft’s current answer is to focus on cloud services, which can be accessed and used regardless of what device you’re on. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the company is actively redesigning Windows to extend well beyond your PC.

Surface Note concept Ryan Smalley/Behance

We don’t know the details yet, but the company is said to be pursuing an idea it first explored with Microsoft Courier back in 2009. Today, it’s being referred to as the Surface Phone – though that’s an unofficial name given by fans. Whatever the final product might be called, patents show a notebook-like device that uses the stylus Surface products have become known for. Whether it’ll work as a phone, like its nickname suggests, isn’t clear; concepts show a wide variety of sizes, so Microsoft itself is still experimenting.

The Surface Phone is not just a hardware project, of course. It’s rumored to use an operating system called Windows Core OS, which is based on the Windows 10 shell. Again, Microsoft is picking up where it left off with Windows 8, dreaming of “One Windows” that works on platforms ranging from the Xbox to the Surface Phone. Microsoft isn’t going to be replacing Windows 10 soon, but it’s certainly planning to extend and modify it to work on other platforms.

Macbook Pro 2018 concept Daniel Brunsteiner/Behance

Microsoft isn’t the only company patenting a dual-screen device. Despite what it says to the media, Apple is also interested in developing a modernized laptop that ditches the keyboard. According to a handful of new patents from Apple, the company wants to expand the Touch Bar across the entire deck of the MacBook Pro. This will make touch controls readily available on its laptop, laying the foundation to intertwine the functionality of iOS and MacOS. Add in the framework for universal iOS apps, and you’ve got something that sounds an awful lot like merging its mobile and desktop operating systems.

When the likes of Microsoft and Apple are headed in the same direction, you know a true watershed moment is in the works.

Google’s Fuchsia leads the way

Google has been transforming Chromebooks into touch-friendly devices for over a year now, slowly bringing features from Android to the mobile apps it now supports. It’s only a temporary solution. Google’s real solution has been in the works for years now; brand new operating system called Fuchsia.

Fuchsia has been built to go beyond the boundaries of mobile (Android) and desktop (Chrome OS) platforms — or, perhaps, converge them in a more meaningful way. Although it’s bare-bones, Fuchsia gives us a peek into one possible future.

google fuchsia github demo
Recently, a developer posted a browser-based demo for Fuchsia with Google’s publicly available code over on GitHub. There’s not much to do (or even much to see), but it’s our first real look at what Google has been working on behind the curtain.

To do it, Fuchsia doesn’t just add elements from each. It reimagines some of the basic structures of traditional computing like windows, multitasking, and opening apps. It’s built around fullscreen apps, like a mobile device, but gives you a clear view of what apps you have open, similar to MacOS’ multi-desktop view. At center of it all is an amorphous Google search bar, which can do everything from open local apps and files to search the web.

This is the future of computers, and it’s not as far off as it might seem.

A button in the top left corner of the screen lets you move back and forth between a smaller smartphone screen and a larger laptop screen. That essential elemental responds to different display sizes just like a responsive website would. As it stands, Fuchsia won’t convince anyone to leave iOS or Windows 10 behind, but it’s taking the need for a unified operating system seriously.

This is the future of computers, and it’s not as far off as it might seem. All three companies see the problem at hand and are doing everything  in their power to be the first to solve it.

But when the future comes, it won’t be all sunshine and rainbows. With the conveniences of a unified operating system come the added difficulty of escaping them. With only three companies in the race, the real walled gardens won’t be built around devices, but between the ecosystems of Google, Apple, and Microsoft. Leaving one for the other, or for a new competitor, is bound to be a painful experience. If you think moving from iOS to Android is difficult now, just imagine doing that when your entire digital life is tied into it.

For good or for bad, this watershed moment is coming — and it just might make us look back at the iPhone as the first drop in a much larger deluge.  

Product Review

Asus ZenBook 3 Deluxe (late 2017) review

As our Asus ZenBook 3 Deluxe (late 2017) review shows, adding an 8th-gen Intel Core processor to an excellent thin and light chassis makes for a great combination.
Wearables

Samsung's new Galaxy Watch touts ultra-tough glass, multiday battery life

Samsung has finally introduced a sequel to the Galaxy Gear S3 smartwatch -- called the Samsung Galaxy Watch. The new device features a slick design, Samsung's Tizen operating system, and a heart rate monitor to help you track your fitness.
Computing

PDF to JPG conversion is quick and easy using these simple methods

Converting file formats can be an absolute pain, but it doesn't have to be. We've put together a comprehensive guide on how to convert a PDF to JPG, no matter which operating system you're running.
Mobile

Sixth public beta of iOS 12 still lacks one key feature

At this year's Worldwide Developer Conference, Apple unveiled its latest operating system, iOS 12. From app updates to group FaceTime, ARKit 2.0, and more, here are all the new features in iOS 12.
Computing

Windows 10 can split and resize windows with ease. Here's how to do it

Windows 10 is a great desktop operating system, and its many window management features are part of the reason why. Here's how to divvy up windows using Snap Assist and other native tools.
Computing

Reluctant to give your email address away? Here's how to make a disposable one

Want to sign up for something without the risk of flooding your inbox with copious amounts of spam and unwanted email? You might want to consider using disposable email addresses with one of these handy services.
Computing

Logitech’s distinctive new ergonomic mouse looks as good as it feels

Logitech's first true ergonomic mouse sports an interesting tilted design that encourages less muscle strain. We spent some time with the MX Vertical to see how comfortable it is and determine whether or not we'd prefer it to a standard…
Computing

Both the Razer Blade and XPS 15 are capable laptops, but which is better?

We pit the latest Dell XPS 15 against the latest Razer Blade 15 to see which machine meets the needs of most people. Both are a fast, attractive, and well-built, but they still appeal to different users.
Computing

Use one of these password managers to stay safe online

The internet can be a scary place, especially if you don't have a proper passcode manager. This guide will show you the best password managers you can get right now, including both premium and free options. Find the right password software…
Mobile

Airport’s low-tech solution to digital chaos involves the humble whiteboard

A U.K. airport has suffered a major computer error, caused by data connection problems, which has stopped flight boards from showing crucial passenger information. The solution is wonderfully low-tech.
Computing

Here’s how to watch Nvidia’s GeForce event at Gamescom

Today is August 20, and that means Nvidia may showcase its GeForce RTX 20 Series of add-in graphics cards for gamers. We’re sticking with that name rather than the previous GTX 11 Series brand due to today’s date.
Computing

HTC breaks down VR barriers by bringing Oculus Rift titles to Viveport

HTC's Viveport store and subscription service will be opened to Oculus Rift users in September this year, letting them buy titles directly and take advantage of the monthly game-delivery service.
Computing

Dell’s new fast-refresh Freesync display could be your next great gaming screen

Dell has debuted a pair of new gaming TN displays, each offering high refresh rates and fast response times to gamers alongside Freesync technology. There are 24- and 27-inch versions of the new screens available now.
Computing

Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 20 Series starts at $500 and features real-time ray tracing

Nvidia revealed its new GeForce RTX 2000 Series of add-in desktop graphics cards for gamers during its pre-show Gamescom press event. The new family is based on Nvidia’s new “Turing” architecture focusing on real-time ray tracing.