Imagine if every Android smartphone could transform into a PC just by connecting a display, keyboard, and mouse. It’s what Microsoft has been trying with Windows 10 and Continuum, and it’s the dream of Beijing-based startup Jide Technologies, which today announces a new version of its Android-based software, Remix OS, that will live on smartphones but be capable of powering Android-based PCs.
The feature is called Remix Singularity and the new operating system is Remix OS on Mobile (or ROM), and is scheduled for release in the second half of 2017. Speaking exclusively to The Verge, Jide co-founder David Ko explains the key concept. When running on a smartphone, ROM will be “as close to stock Android as possible,” says Ko. “But imagine when you get back to your office or study, you connect your phone and it turns into a PC mode, just like a laptop or desktop.”
The “PC mode” in question is Remix OS itself, which Jide has been working on for about three years and has had more than 4 million downloads in that time. It skins Android so the operating systems runs like a desktop environment, with features like floating windows, a start menu, and a task bar — all controllable with a keyboard and mouse. You get all the usual apps, everything from Clash of Clans to Microsoft Word and Google Docs, but they are accessible in something that looks more like Windows than Android. Or, you can plug your phone into just a display and have it function like an Android-powered TV.
The big question is: why would anyone want this? Plenty of companies have tried to offer phones that double up as PCs, but none have been successful. Canonical tried it with their Convergence feature on Ubuntu; Asus tried it with their PadFone range back in the days of Android Ice Cream Sandwich; and (as previously mentioned) Microsoft is doing something more advanced with Windows 10 and Continuum. In each case, the final product has failed to take off (in fairness, Microsoft’s latest attempt hasn’t really got going yet), because of a combination of underpowered hardware and missing software. So, why does Jide think Remix Singularity will be any different?
Ko says the company’s approach has two big advantages: cost and the Android ecosystem itself. Like previous versions of Remix OS, ROM will be free to download, and will have access to all the regular Android apps (once you’ve side-loaded the Play Store — more on that later), which should increase its appeal to users in developing markets where Android smartphones are the primary way to access the internet.
“In the next five years, roughly five billion people will be coming online,” says Ko. “And when they come online, their number one choice will be the smartphone; an affordable smartphone, and that will be an Android.” Ko says that if these users choose a ROM device, they’ll get the benefit of a desktop computer thrown in for free, as and when they need it. “If your phone can replace [your PC], it’s a huge saving, and has a big impact to productivity,” says Ko. He imagines workers having a phone as their primary device, bringing it into the office with them, and connecting it to a large screen and keyboard in order to continue the work they started on their commute.
But as we’ve seen before, this setup isn’t attractive in developed markets. Here, people have multiple computers and use cloud services to share files between them, which is easier than relying on an underpowered phone CPU to handle a Chrome browser groaning with tabs on your main display. Ko is right that factors like cost and familiarity with Android mean Remix OS on Mobile should have its own appeal, but it’s not clear if those will be big enough draws to reach a wide market.
One of the biggest challenges for Jide will simply be getting the software into consumers’ hands. The company is currently looking for OEM partners to sell phones that support Remix Singularity, and it does have experience in this area, having previously worked with Chinese companies to sell hardware like all-in-one PCs powered by Remix OS.
Ko adds that users will also just be able to download ROM and install it themselves, but that seems like a big ask for the market Jide is targeting — users coming online for the first time. And, there’s another (minor) challenge here. Remix OS doesn’t actually come with the Play Store preinstalled, meaning that to access the full Android ecosystem of apps, users have to side-load it themselves. It’s not a big ask for the tech-savvy, but it’ll surely put off some users. Similarly, while Remix OS looks slick on the surface, it’s still prone to bugs and errors, and nobody likes an operating system that bellyflops into oblivion without warning.
These are some sizable caveats to weigh against Remix OS on Mobile’s success, and there’s always the nagging possibility that this is just another doomed attempt at making mobiles that double up as PCs. Will it go the distance? History says don’t hold your breath, but Jide is hopeful.
With a scheduled release date of the second half of 2017, Remix Singularity is still very much a work in progress, but Ko says there’s much to look forward to, and points to the development of Chrome OS to support Android apps as “validation” of the company’s long-term plans. Jason Zheng, a marketing director at Jide, sums up the company’s hopes. “This is the culmination of the past three years’ of development,” says Zheng. “The freedom to not have to worry about carrying a laptop or tablet is a very powerful thing.”