Microsoft Your Phone, First Take: Nice idea, but implementation needs to improve

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Microsoft's UWP platform contains some very interesting capabilities that are starting to power new Windows 10 features. One of these, codenamed Project Rome, is a set of tools for sharing data and files between devices. It's already powering the cross-platform Timeline features in current production builds, along with Windows 10's Nearby Sharing tools.

If you're using Edge on Android or iOS, and you're logged in to the same Microsoft Account on your PC, your history now syncs to your PCs. That history, along with your opened Office documents is now part of the Windows Task Switcher, letting you scroll through what you've done as well as what you're doing. Using Project Rome's APIs it's easy to extend your files and applications to all your devices, with just a few lines of code.

BUILD 2018 saw Microsoft's Joe Belfiore unveil a new Project Rome-based tool, Your Phone. Intended to bring your phone experience to your PC, it would mirror notifications and let you send and read SMS messages, as well as giving you direct access to files and applications. Much of that planned functionality will only work on Android, due to iOS security settings, but the idea of a way of working with your phone without losing the context of your PC makes a lot of sense. Instead of being distracted by Candy Crush when you pick up a phone to read a text, you'll see a notification in the Action Center and can read and answer from the Your Phone app.

That's the plan. Now it's time for the reality.

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Your Phone lets you share the latest 25 pictures on your Android phone with your PC.

Image: Simon Bisson/ZDNet

Microsoft recently unveiled the first version of the Your Phone app to Insider testers on the Fast and Skip Ahead rings, focusing on sharing camera roll content from Android phones to PCs. Bundled with the latest builds of Windows 10's 18H2 release, Your Phone is a UWP app that links to software running on Android devices to share the latest 25 pictures on your phone with your PC.

Setting up a connection isn't hard. You'll first need to register your Android and iOS devices with the Phone settings page. That can be done by signing into Edge (on iOS and Android) or the Microsoft Launcher (on Android) with a Microsoft Account. Once your devices are linked to your account, they'll be registered on all PCs that log into the same account. Once you launch Your Phone you'll be able to pick and choose the device you want to connect to.

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Sadly at this point iOS devices only get a page that tells you about Timeline integration, and thanks to iOS security restrictions it's unlikely to get much more. Things get more interesting when you connect to an Android device, and you're asked to text a link to a download that will enable Your Phone services on devices running Android 7 or later. This is a beta version of the existing Microsoft Apps app, ostensibly a catalog of Microsoft's various Android software. It's an odd place to put Project Rome code, but it's less likely to interfere with other code here so makes sense for an initial Insider test release. I'd hope to see it moved elsewhere before final release.

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Once your devices are linked to your Microsoft account, they'll be registered on all PCs that log into the same account.

Image: Simon Bisson/ZDNet

Once the software is installed, you'll need to accept a connection request from your PC on your phone. That needs to be repeated for every new PC you connect to your phone. Once connected, you'll see a grid of photos on your PC. One thing to note: everything is viewed as a square image, so you won't see the entire picture until you open it in your choice of photo viewer app or if you drag onto your PC.

Click on a photo to open it locally. You'll be given the option of the Windows 10 Photos app or any other registered image handler. While you can pick a default app, it's probably best to leave the choice open. Images can be edited and saved onto your PC; you can't use your PC to edit and save back onto your phone -- unless you save onto OneDrive and open the changed image back on your phone. It's a bit disappointing to see that Your Photos is only a one-way connection; if the PC and phone are to become true companion devices, the connection really needs to be two-way. Images can also be dragged off the phone onto your PC, straight into applications like Word, giving you the option of new workflows around illustrating screenshots or walkthroughs.

The idea behind Your Phone is sound -- I'm just unsure about this specific implementation. The Microsoft Apps app that hosts the Android connection is unreliable and regularly fails to connect to any of my test PCs without restarting either of the phones I've been testing it on. And while quick access to the last 25 photos I took is useful, it's only a fraction of the promised capability. Putting the Android side of the connector in a catalog of apps doesn't really makes sense -- but then, neither does moving Continue on PC to the Microsoft Launcher. If there was to be one app that hosted Project Rome on Android, surely the logical one would be OneDrive? After all, it's here that we share files and photographs with our cloud storage, so why not with our PCs?

There's a lot to like in the Project Rome concept. Having spent time with its APIs, it's a well-designed and powerful tool for connecting and sharing real-time information between local devices. If Your Phone can deliver the full Project Rome experience, then it'll be a game changer. But if it falls short, users will be disappointed. Microsoft has a narrow bridge to cross here, and it needs to keep its balance if it's going to deliver on the promise. On this first showing, I'm not sure it can.

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