Blog Post

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.

25 Responses to “Could a Dockable iPhone Be a Better Netbook?”

  1. hand123

    I would love to be able to dock my iPhone, hook up a large display, hook up speakers, plug it in to an AC outlet, bluetooth an Apple aluminum keyboard and bluetooth a magic trackpad. Then I can use my iPhone as a desktop computer. Then I can get rid of all my other computers and laptops.

  2. A screen dock for $250 would be a good addition. For most that would bring the whole package to about $500. With 3G, iTunes, App Store and possibly software such as iWork and iLife based in the cloud it would make a good proposition to most for working while on the move.

  3. With VDI becoming mainstream it makes since that the IPhone have a dock. Since VMware view client apps are already available, it would be simple to have companies use there Iphones to replace thin clients. With a bluetooth head set, the Iphone could also server as their desk phone. This would cut cost significantly for companies if done correctly.

  4. Egnyte is a cloud solution that is a great option since iphones and netbooks work well with egnyte.

    This is what is says on their website.

    *Note: currently available for iPhone

    Egnyte provides your business quick and seamless mobile access to all information. Regardless of where you are located, use your mobile phone to securely access and share files from your On Demand File Server.

    Egnyte provides your mobile workers, quick and seamless access to your On Demand File Server from their mini laptops, not only overcoming the storage limitations, but also, enabling easy sharing of files within the team.

    Transform a NetBook to a “NoteBook”
    Popular for their small size, portability and low cost, NetBooks are currently restricted in their ability to function as a complete mobile office due to their basic feature set, limited performance and small hard drive. Egnyte provides unlimited online storage, as well as the ability to easily and securely access and share files, anytime and anywhere. For small businesses and mobile professionals, the solution provides a cost effective and efficient means to utilize a NetBook as an office on the go.

  5. A netbook style clamshell for the iPhone was “announced” back in October 2008 but never seemed to materialise.

    Anyway, the idea is not new, as the iPhone clamshell demonstrates, along with Palm trying it with the Foleo concept but being caned for the idea by the media, pundits and bloggers, and there was the RedFly device a couple of years for Windows Mobile users, which certainly hasn’t taken off either.

    Nowadays, besides using smartphones to access the Internet directly (mobile Safari on iPhones, Opera Mobile on Symbian/WinMo devices) some people have been using their smartphones tethered to notebooks or netbooks, via USB or Bluetooth wireless, to give those note/netbooks access to the Internet.

    Yes, not all phones offer tethering or can do it but have it disabled, some phone companies charge extra, etc, but it’s been happening for a long time already.

    I would, however, like to have a phone that can connect to any TV/monitor/projector (from composite to HDMI) and be able to connect to a wired or wireless keyboard, but still be as thin as the iPhone, among plenty of other features! :-)



  6. let me just answer the title’s question: HELL NO!

    have any of you used a decent netbook? frack, my netbook does everything my main rig does and it’s portable (mini 9, 2 lbs). I run code on it, analyze data, write articles, listen to music, and so much more.

    my iPhone is great for what it does (like connecting to my mac and pc via Jaduu; listening to music, gps’ing, reading books, whatever) but replacing a netbook???? First of all, it would have to start MULTITASKING (without jailbreaking). Just a thought.

    • I agree with you, iPhone won’t be able to replace netbook, just like netbook that can’t replace regular notebook or desktop PC. Netbook can be used for light tasks but not the heavy apps, and the size of the keyboard will make my finger tired. I assume that will also happen on netbook – iPhone.


  7. Mr. Lee

    A doc would be pointless to me: the main advantage of the iPhone or iTouch as a computer is it’s extreme portability. But for traveling or even cafe use, I’d love a portable (folding?) keyboard, much lighter and a bit smaller than a netbook. Of course, the problem for Apple would be that like a lot of people, the iPhone offers enough processing power that with a keyboard, I might not need a notebook anymore.

  8. Charles Moore

    Mark got the point, which wasn’t to drag around the dock and peripherals. The iPhone would still handle mobile duties, but be able to jack into the dock when you got to the office or home, which was the philosophy behind the Duo.


  9. I sent a similar idea to Apple about a year ago. My idea was why not have the iPhone be able to drive a full screen monitor and a connection for a keyboard so you can use it as a mini-computer. I can see it going in that direction someday.

    I have to say that the dock idea is one step better. I could see a problem in my configuration with answering the phone with the computer and video cables connected.

  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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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….

  13. Gazoobee

    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.

  14. CVBruce

    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.

  15. Matt Rix

    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).

  16. 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.

  17. ryemac3

    “….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.

    • 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.

    • Matt Rix

      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.