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Summary:

PC Mag’s Sascha Segan posed an intriguing question the other day: “If you put a smartphone in a dock, it could replace a netbook. So why hasn’t anyone succeeded at doing that?” Good question. Now that I’ve been thinking about it, the idea of a dock […]

PowerBook Duo: A hint of things to come?

PowerBook Duo: A hint of things to come?

PC Mag’s Sascha Segan posed an intriguing question the other day: “If you put a smartphone in a dock, it could replace a netbook. So why hasn’t anyone succeeded at doing that?”

Good question.

Now that I’ve been thinking about it, the idea of a dock into which you could pop an iPhone or an iPod touch, thereby quickly connecting it to a decent-sized external display, keyboard and mouse, some USB ports, Ethernet, and maybe an SD Card slot, you would have, if not best of both worlds, at least an attractive hybrid.

A dockable smartphone/Internet computer would no doubt cost more than a PC netbook, but it could also be much more versatile, and arguably a better overall value.

Indeed, external input device support over Bluetooth alone would make handhelds much more appealing to me. As Segan observes, with “65,000 apps for the iPhone alone, it’s hard to believe that there aren’t thousands of people who would want to use those apps with a nice big keyboard and screen.”

Of course, to make a docked iPhone or iPod touch truly competitive with the netbook segment, it would require driver tweaking and some re-engineering to support the necessary hardware inputs and outputs. There’s also the issue of what Segan refers to as “the OS problem,” specifically: The iPhone OS as presently configured is not really up to the job of supporting the kind of robust productivity apps that can run on a netbook under Linux, Windows, or OS X.

I’ve long been a fan and admirer of the Apple PowerBook Duo concept from the early to mid ’90s. It combined a subcompact laptop module that could be used as a freestanding notebook, and a Duo Dock with a full-size CRT monitor, a full set contemporary of I/O ports, and internal expansion slots for desktop power with few compromises.

Toward the end of the ’90s, laptop computers became powerful, versatile, and gained improved connectivity and display options. Many of the the Duo’s advantages were negated, but it seems to me quite logical that the PowerBook Duo concept could be successfully updated, using a handheld instead as its “core module.”

Indeed, it’s so logical that it seems a wonder no one has yet acted on the idea. Segan thinks the reason is that Apple and the wireless carriers don’t want it to happen. Presently, folks who have both a smartphone and a netbook need two wireless service subscriptions, whereas our proposed dockable handheld hybrid device would theoretically only require one. As for keyboard-supporting iPhones, he thinks that won’t happen because Apple doesn’t want to erode MacBook sales.

All that sounds a bit conspiratorial, but also lamentably plausible. Even so, look at the issue from the angle of a similar new product category. While Microsoft has a complicated relationship with the netbook phenomenon, and Apple is downright contemptuous, consumers voted with their wallets and made the netbook the hottest-selling category in computers. Now that the dam has burst as it were, Microsoft is playing ball with the netbook-optimized edition of Windows 7.

I think platform convergence and rationalization between the smartphone and netbook spaces could likewise catch the consumer imagination and take on a life of its own. It seems just too good an idea to be able to keep suppressed indefinitely.

  1. “….could replace a netbook. So why hasn’t anyone succeeded at doing that?”

    No one’s succeeded at that because it’s a stupid idea! Why the hell would someone want to replace their full-powered, full featured netbook, with the crippled OS of a smartphone? And have to lug around a LCD, keyboard, and mouse? Seriously, do these people listen to themselves? You’re really going to dock you phone so you can check your mail? People dock their laptops to docking stations so they can get some work done, not to check their mail and look at their calendars.

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    1. why would anyone want to replace their full-powered, full-featured laptop with the crippled OS of a netbook? And have to suffer through low voltage processor chipsets that are really slow, and suffer having to use a small keyboard.

      That’s what I want to know. There is a use for netbooks. And that’s for people who don’t need to do anything other than check their email or do some web surfing. If they do anything more than that though they might as well just get a full featured laptop. It doesn’t take up that much more space in a backpack or carrying case and they perform substantially better than netbooks.

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    2. ryemac3 is spot on the money here. Why would you carry around something that’d have to be the same size as a netbook when you could just have a netbook? The iPhone is powerful for a phone, but it’d be a VERY underpowered netbook/laptop.

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  2. My long-time dream has been to have a mobile device that contains my home folder (personal settings, documents and applications) that I could dock into a netbook, terminal or full-on desktop system. My home folder could be automatically backed up in the cloud, but there would always be a copy of my files on the mobile device so I could use it offline.

    I believe IBM has experimented with this in the past, but as your article suggested, nobody has gotten it quite right yet. I also believe that there was some experimentation with this in the past with the iPod, but it never saw the light of day.

    So maybe the elusive Apple netbook-tablet-thing-a-ma-jig will be able to finally do that, along with a few more tricks. If it does, it will fulfill a major technophile desire of mine. And if it can do it via wireless USB, I may just pass out.

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  3. Victor, I don’t know how much you’ve used a netbook, but on good ones(ex. the acer aspire one), your hands get used to the keyboard after a couple of weeks. I can type over 80wpm on mine now. I don’t just “check my email and do web surfing”, I do a lot of programming and even some design stuff on my way to work every day on the train(where a normal laptop wouldn’t comfortably fit, I’ve tried). It takes up WAY less space than a normal computer: I can fit it into one of the small secondary pockets in my backpack, leaving the main one free for all kinds of other things(like my macbook). And yes, they’re not as powerful as a monster laptop, but they have enough power to do much more than just email and web surfing(which computers with 1/4 the specs could do, 5 years ago).

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  4. Didn’t Palm try this with the Palm Folio? It’s just one of those ideas that sounds great until you actually have to part with the money. Or have to tote it along on a trip.

    Now a portable keyboard and a dock, that is something I have parted money with and would do again.

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  5. You know if Apple just produced a cheaper Airbook like say, $500-$600 they would out sell the notebooks.

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  6. It’s pretty obvious that this is exactly what Apple’s tablet is all about. A form factor big enough to do netbook type functions and work, that syncs with your home computer (and probably the cloud too).

    There are lots of us out there that don’t use laptops because of the issue of always keeping your documents in sync with your “main” computer. Most users of laptops, use them as their one and only computer for that reason.

    A portable computer that you can do actual *work* on that syncs with your main desktop computer would sell like hotcakes. Not only would it be a practical solution for a netbook type device, it could easily replace laptops themselves as a category. It just depends how much work you can do on the thing and how usefull it actually is.

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  7. I was fortunate to be able to use the entire Duo line of products in the ’90s. It was a great product concept that ultimately was killed by really atrocious engineering in the 2300c. But, the Duo Docks were never really very useful to me (they were way too restrictive); if I wanted the power of a desktop, I would use a miniDock to be able to share the Duo resources via Appletalk/Ethernet. I would suggest that this is perhaps a better model for mobile devices as opposed to docks….

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  8. [...] Edit Staff | Tuesday, August 25, 2009 | 9:03 AM PT | 0 comments Could a dockable iPhone be a better netbook? (TheAppleBlog) Build your own open-source digital clock (OStatic) 5 lessons from Cash for Clunkers [...]

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  9. Those who think it’d be silly lugging around a relatively tiny iPhone with a much larger Bluetooth keyboard rather than a laptop are forgetting something.

    Many people just want a keyboard for occasional, keyboard-intensive tasks like creating or updating a contact database, particularly for applications that don’t have a desktop application to sync with. They don’t intend to take the keyboard on the road. They just want to use it at home or in the office.

    A Bluetooth keyboard is the easiest way to do that. Another option would be to allow an iPhone to dock to a Mac or PC in such a way that, either via Bluetooth or the USB connection, a Mac or PC keyboard could serve as the iPhone’s keyboard.

    Apple needs to quit being such interface purists. A simple Bluetooth keyboard driver can’t be that hard to create. So far, they’ve been as stubbornly resistant about a keyboard for the iPhone as they once were about multi-button mice on Macs. I just hope we don’t have to wait as long this time.

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  10. As some one mentioned above Palm did have a concept device known as the Foleo and there is still the Celio Redfly. However the celio is probably going to fail pretty soon due to terrible marketing (if any) and its restriction to the windows mobile platform.
    Now i do agree that i would love such a device due to the fact that you can undock the Iphone for use when you are mobile; when you have a flat surface you can go ahead and dock it, and have the advantages of all your apps with a bigger screen and keyboard.

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