It’s time for the modular PC


OqoThe ultra-portable PC has come of age.  The genre started getting serious with the debut of the Sony U series several years ago and has evolved nicely into the OQO Model 02 currently available.  It is now possible without question to produce a full-featured PC in a handheld package that is almost pocketable.  While these devices work just fine as stand-alone systems, they really begin to shine when coupled with a dock that transforms the handheld into a full-fledged desktop system.  This makes sense as it uses the expensive handheld as the "core" of the desktop and typical accessories like monitors, keyboards and optical drives round out the big system, extending the usefulness of the handheld. These systems work really well but I believe it’s time to take it further.

What if we expanded the role of the UPC into a real modular system.  Imagine a laptop form factor that is very light and has no CPU nor memory.  Basically a shell system with a typical laptop screen and full keyboard.  The magic starts when you flip it over and notice on the bottom of the laptop there is a rectangular port exactly the size of the OQO.  When you need a bigger screen and keyboard you simply pop the OQO into the "dock" on the bottom of the "laptop" and voila!  Instant laptop that uses the OQO as the brains and memory and transforms it into a full-sized laptop.

This concept can be carried to other form factors just as easily.  Pop the OQO or similar UPC into the back of a slate shell and have an instant Tablet PC.  Or instead of a dock you pop the UPC into the port on a desktop module that is basically just a hub for a desktop system.  Or maybe a true portfolio system that accepts the UPC into the slot and has a screen on one side of the portfolio.  Kind of a very smart day planner that doubles as a full slate PC.  These shell peripherals could have another battery to share with the core and provide extra long life without adding much in the way of size.  Since they use the handheld as the core all of your data, programs and operating environment are always with you no matter what shell you are using.

While I would love to claim this modular approach as my own it’s not, at least not entirely.  I remember IBM was talking up a modular system like this years ago but for the life of me I can’t remember what they called it.  If you know please post it in the comments along with any information you recall about it.  Their system had the core module as just a CPU/ memory module that required accessories to enable the usage of the core.  My concept differs in that the handheld PC is a full stand-alone PC that you can use while mobile when needed.  Dual purpose makes this concept very powerful in my mind.

MCC Computing sells a modular system today but as in the other systems the core is simply a CPU module that plugs into other devices such as handheld PCs, laptops, desktops and other forms.  It’s a slick system they offer but again it’s a design that requires another device to use with the module to be functional where as my concept doesn’t require anything but the handheld to be functional.  Let the user add other devices to work in tandem with it if needed.


TechDirt has reminded us about the IXI Corp, makers of the ogo handheld communications device.  They originally were to produce a core system like the IBM concept I described above but never were able to bring anything to market.  A new startup, Bug Labs, is supposedly working on something similar but no one is certain what they are doing.  Neither of these companies were looking at it from the standpoint that I am though, having the core as a full-fledged handheld computer.  This is possible since handhelds are small enough now that they can easily fit into other "peripherals" that leverage the PC part of the handheld.  What do you think, is this a viable product you’d be interested in?  Can you think of any other peripherals that would be useful to you and extend the usefulness of a handheld like the OQO?



I think as soon as I dropped it (let’s not bother with “if,” since I WILL drop it), the modular setup would shatter into a thousand unusable pieces, or something would warp so that pieces would no longer fit together.

Asus should start billing the R2H as ruggedized…not that I have, uh, any empirical data to base that comment on…really…you believe me, don’t you?


have i already been doing this? i have a raon digital vega and take it in my pocket. when im at home i connect it via usb since it acts as a hard drive when it’s off. now i can access those files on my vega – on my desktop.

if you want to take it a step further and utilize other people’s pc’s (granted you have admin priveleges) you can install mojopac on the raon digital vega (or everrun when it comes out) and access not only your data but your apps as well.


Any device for me would HAVE to have instant on via WM6, GSM GPS also covered by WM6, Office compatibility covered again by WM6, I’m sure you get the picture. So my all-time must-have/want device was the DualCor cPC. Small enough to fit your modular scenario perfectly.

What happened to the DualCor cPC? Didn’t bloggers at the Gadgeteer get a working prototype? Such a shame utopia is also around the corner.


This is a concept that has been discussed extensively at

It’s a great concept, but the processors in most handhelds are still slow by any standards. Perhaps with a shell and added RAM it could make a difference, but you still need to overcome the issues of hot docking RAM. Speed stepping would be a nice feature if the ultramobile processors were simply stepped way down on battery instead of being slow all the time.

I don’t think the current crop of hand held or UMPC’s are up to the “shell game” yet…


Instead of a useless clear side panel on the desktop PC, have a dock-holder for the tablet / UMPC / handheld-PC.

The full size PC can use the CPU of the UMPC in addition to its own (dual processors). But why stop at sharing CPUs ?

A hard drive in each device, set up in a smart mirrored RAID, which updates whichever drive needs it.


I would hate to do any processing on my tablet. It’s too slow.

However, what should happen is that you could plug in the tablet to a beefier desktop PC, and it would boot from the hard drive, but use the desktop’s processor. That way, you still have one machine, but it’s speed varies depending on your need, without having to have two licenses of the OS or Office.

The problem with this is that Windows is tied to one machine, and this method would probably show up as a new install. Still, one can hope!

James Kendrick

I believe the costs of peripherals should be quite manageable if the system I describe is done like I’ve indicated. These other modular systems are doomed to be very expensive because they put only the CPU in the core module. If a laptop shell is done right it doesn’t need expensive components in it, just the chassis, screen, keyboard, and some fans to help the handheld core out with heat. That’s it. Such a shell should be cheaper than the Foleo which has a processor, graphics processor and flash memory.


One thing I hope a manufacturer pays atention to is price. The antelope is essentially a modular PC but every module costs the same as the full PC it intends to replace. Not good.

You can already do semi solutions with things like the Q1 portfolio case + keyboard for laptop use and just plugging external stuff for desktop use.

I’m excited about the upcomming external graphics cards but once again I think price will be prohibitive and not a lot of UMPCs seem to include the express card slot.


I agree Apple will make it easy to use with an appealing UI and seamless integration. They will just wait until Microsoft finishes the table.


The head of Symbian pushed the modular concept back when he claimed smartphones would eventually replace laptops. Obviously though, his intention was that the smartphone, not the PC, would serve as the core.

Currently, I see Apple as the company with the greatest potential in this area. The iPhone, by design, is a modular device. Like the iPod, it was built to work with external enhancements, and there are portable and standing monitors that work with the iPod. Only a matter of time before that applies to the phone. And Apple has a scalable OS that can run on handhelds and desktops. Not to mention AppleTV is basically an extension module for a computer running iTunes. They may not hit the market first, but they have already laid heavy groundwork to enter the modular world.


Excellent post James. I agree this is where technology needs to go. After trying to tether, connect, sync (on and on) the same data on different devices we all need at different times with mixed results, why not have one core device with different utilization options? In a recent podcast you (or someone else) mentioned that the Foleo is actually a good idea that will be taken to the next level by others.
Palm sould have built the core first and then the Foleo could have been the first shell. Instead they looked at the Treo as the core so the Foleo needs to be powered to a certain degree.
This is really interesting.

Marcelo Rodrigues

The IBM machine you are thinking of is the Meta Pad. I have some material from IBM’s “Think Research” that I can send if you can’t find it on IBM’s site.

James Kendrick

Thanks! What I envision is not so much to replace the desktop but rather to provide a full-sized laptop or Tablet PC which these handhelds can handle today. The laptop “shell” could be produced for just a few hundred dollars, just look at how cheap the Palm Foleo is. It would be cheaper than that as it would require no real hardware components inside.


This is the best idea I have ever read. I’d be willing to pay more for one of these than I did for my car.

Northern Rebel

While the concept sounds interesting I don’t think current generation UMPS have enough power to be actually used as a REAL desktop replacement. Not many years in the future I could see myself wanting this when UMPS are as powerful as laptops are today.

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