Could a Dockable iPhone Be a Better Netbook?

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 (s aapl) 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 (s msft) 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.