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Smartphones and Dumb Docks: A Proposal

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If there was one smartphone that stood out at CES earlier this month, it was Motorola's Atrix 4G, which plenty of gadget sites (including us) picked as being one of the best of the show. Just the specs alone are impressive -- it sports a 4-inch, 960 x 540 display, 1GB of RAM, an NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual-core processor, and HSPA+ -- but what really caught everyone's attention was the laptop dock accessory Motorola was showing off. Useless on its own, you just pop the Atrix 4G into a connector in the back and you have in your hands what is essentially a fully-functioning netbook that gives you access to all the files and Android apps on your phone. We've finally reached the point where smartphones are powerful enough to do this stuff without too many compromises, and it's exciting that the Atrix 4G might actually catch on where others, like Celio or Palm's Foleo, have failed.

I put the Atrix 4G on my gdgt Want list when it was announced, and am definitely considering it as my next phone (I'm currently rocking the Nexus S, if you're curious), but I think we're all missing the larger potential in the docks themselves.

What makes the Atrix 4G and its docking system (there will also be an "HD Multimedia Dock" if you want to use it with an external monitor as a desktop) so attractive is the prospect of having one small computing device that you can carry around and then dock into a larger device as needed. It's not hard to imagine a world where it might be commonplace for these "dumb" docks to be everywhere. You wouldn't need to travel for business with a laptop anymore, and you could just pop your phone into a dock at the hotel and then into another dock at your office, another at a cafe, etc. Given the explosion of demand for ultraportable computing, a smartphone and dumb dock system that would give users more flexibility without having to buy multiple machines certainly makes a lot of sense.

There is, of course, one big problem with that vision: it only works if every phone is compatible with every dock. There's no point in carrying around just your phone if the likelihood that the place you're headed is going to have a compatible dock is small. So I'd like to propose that somebody (yes, it should probably be Google) put together a standard webtop OS and dock connector so that we can use any phone with any dock.

Right now, Motorola has its own platform and will presumably be adding docking support to more Android phones. I'm sure that, given the response to the Atrix 4G at CES, we'll see several other phone makers rushing out docks of their own before the end of the year.

I certainly don't expect the entire industry to just magically come together on this. There are too many different smartphone platforms out there for something like that to be feasible anyway. But I do think the more modest goal of a standard docking platform for Android devices is entirely possible, otherwise we're going to end up in a situation where each manufacturer's devices are only compatible with their docks, which is a bit like only being able to use Dell monitors with that new Dell PC you've just bought. If you think Android is fragmented now, just wait until there are a dozen different dock standards out there.

Now would be a good time for Google to take this on. It'd surely be easier for them than for anyone else, since they created Android in the first place, and they could open source it so that everyone in the industry could use it. I suspect they might be a little reluctant to go down this road because it conflicts with their vision for Chrome OS, which is that you just log into a Chrome OS machine and have access to everything you need in the cloud. That said, given their investment in Android (which some have suggested should absorb Chrome OS anyway), and the fact that phone makers are going to do these docks anyway, they may feel like they have to do something like this. (Do you think they were happy to see Firefox running on the Atrix when docked?) This dock platform could even be some offshoot of Chrome OS, just one that also offered access to all your phone's files and Android apps.

A common standard for dock connectors combined with an open source webtop OS would also allow companies that don't make smartphones to get into the game, something which would hopefully lead to lots of interesting designs, as well as cheaper prices (Motorola hasn't announced a price for the Atrix 4G Laptop Dock, but supposedly it'll run about $150). There's no reason why there couldn't be tons of different options for your dock, like a larger or smaller screen, extra features like an SD card reader, better webcam, bigger battery, etc. Shoot, you could even see lots of different versions, like a dock that let's you turn your smartphone into a tablet, one that connects to your car for hands-free calls, GPS, and music, home entertainment and gaming docks for the living room. There will obviously be some form factor issues you'd have to deal with in creating a common standard -- not every smartphone would physically be able to fit into every dock -- but dock adapters and an option to connect via cable would help overcome most of those hurdles.

Hopefully Android phone makers will see the wisdom in this as well, as a common standard would make their handsets more useful and more valuable. I know I'm a little reluctant to spring for the Atrix 4G's Laptop Dock given the strong possibility that it'll be completely useless to me when I upgrade to a new Android phone a year later, and I'm sure others feel the same way. Yes, it will take some work for Google (or whoever tackles this) to get something together, but we'd gain more choice, better options, and a be little bit closer to a future where we could pop our phone into any dock anywhere and get down to business.

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31 replies

I agree with all your points. I have been waiting for something like this for the last 10 years. I always wanted my Diamond Mako (a.k.a. Psion Revo) to be able to run a full monitor and keyboard while I was at home. I fully anticipated using my netbook this way, but the screen and keyboard are just big enough that I never bother... and big enough that it can never be carried in a pocket. If only my EVO supported standard bluetooth keyboards (or if they would release an adapter to make use of the USB keyboard support that is built in), I'd already be using it this way and wouldn't really need a dock.

As you pointed out, the potential conflict with the Chrome OS plans may kill this as an android-wide innovation. And to be honest, the more invested I am in the cloud, the less I pine for this vision of a pocket computer that can dock into larger control mechanisms when I am at a desk. I can just leave the pocket computer in my pocket since the computer at my desk already has access to all the data I've been dealing with on my phone anyway.

Some really innovative form factors could make this compelling enough to get it past the hurdles it will face, but the Atrix is a bit too much of an albatross to do that itself. Unfortunately, Apple already patented all the really cool ways this concept could be used several years ago, and we android users may end up envying the iPhone users who are popping their phones into the "trackpad docks" on their larger machines while we are stuck choosing from unwieldy contraptions that are "unpatentable" for their sheer ugliness and similarity to technologies that were around many years ago (Palm Pilot dock keyboard, anyone?).

The thought of never carrying another laptop bag is pretty compelling, though, and the ability to run my android apps as "widgets" on a large screen might be enough to make me overlook my misgivings about the potential form factors. As "robnee" mentioned in his comments, though, this could already be done with software, possibly in a more compelling way that would not even require docks or cables.

In fact... a simple VNC server running on the android would be the easiest solution. A quick search of the Market only finds one that apparently doesn't run unless the phone has been rooted. Oh yeah, so maybe the dock isn't such a bad idea for the average user after all. ;)
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You make a great point about the cloud. Increasingly my phone serves as just a gateway to the cloud. If I have access to a browser on some desktop somewhere I can probably get at my mail, docs, calendar etc. while leaving the phone in my pocket.
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I've been calling like something like this for years (though maybe not as many as groovechicken!). Particularly given the possibilities of cloud processing, let's offload as much of the numbers-intensive stuff onto Amazon or Rackspace or whatever, and just rely on our phones to act as identifiers and aggregators of our personal settings. As much processing as possible happens offsite in the cloud, so you can just get the phone to translate the output to whatever device is appropriate.

Pandora already does a very lite version of this: it figures out what music you'll like, and then all your phone has to do is play it back. The phone doesn't need the catalog or any database of music preferences... it just plays the tunes and acts as an interface. Plug it into your car, and you've got something very akin to the Atrix dock, just for a very different situation.

Which brings me to my final point: why have connectors at all? Bluetooth or some other protocol will do nicely. Speed might be an issue--but really, if we can get it down the great pipe in the sky (i.e., 3G/4G connections) faster than we can pipe it over Bluetooth, I call foul with that protocol.

So, now we've got a phone that pairs with your car to stream audio, pairs with your relatively dumb computer to bring over all your files, bookmarks, cookies, etc. (never have to login to Facebook again!), and does it all wirelessly. No need for proprietary or other kinds of connectors... just set the thing down nearby.

Just had a thought: NFC might also work here. Let's be sure to stay on top of the new wave, after all...
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NFC could work on this device but was not announce to, I am sure people are nervous about putting tech into phones that just may not be worth it. We will really have to wait and see on this. I heard iPhone 5 may get NFC and that would really ge the tech behind this moving, I know that Steve Jobs and Apple know how to shake things up! Get them popular!
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To your point about having the interface be wireless... in concept I agree, this would eliminate any and all devices size/connector compatibility issues, but would exacerbate the bane of every smartphone -- limited battery life. OEM's could conceivably add another chip to next gen smartphones (e.g. WiDi) but you can only imagine how short a battery would last blasting wireless HD into the ether. This would also introduce security complications. In my opinion industry groups should hurry along with a micro USB 3.0 spec for all devices & docs to standardize upon.
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i am looking at the droid x 2 as being a similar phone to the atrix. Atrix is rumored for march ish and rumors float around saying droid x 2 as june or july! This gives moto time to really figure out how to either make a universal moto dock or at least test the atrix waters. I am hoping that the droid x 2 supports this, mostly because the droid x 2 as a SLIGHTLY upgraded device would be irritating!

From droid to droid 2 we got double the processing power, makes sense for the same to be said on the droid x to droid x 2 move.
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Hey Peter, you should mention docks in the car as well. Like the nexus one car dock app that launches when you plug it in. It could be the brain of your car too, if you want to get crazy...doors unlock automatically if you have the phone in your pocket, etc.
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I did mention car docks in the second to last paragraph. I think there's a lot of potential there.
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for sure. i agree with you. i was just saying that in my civic you can't get full car support from a dock but the dock is pretty awesome as is! smart and I love it
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that would be nice but would have to be specific to a car. The tech has to be there and my 01 civic does not have the tech for this. The stereo does, not the car though
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I like the idea of having one device become the center of my computing world but I don't think the Atrix is going to be it. If I have to carry two things I'd rather have a phone AND a laptop rather than a phone OR a laptop. Once docked I can't use the phone screen for phone tasks. I effectively lose a screen.

Peter points out that the devices and docks should be universal. I see the "dock" as a software problem rather than a hardware one. Why can't the phone dock with any host machine (PC/Mac/Linux) via USB? There would be a small client program on the phone that, once connected, would turn the host into a "dock" for the phone. This is similar to carrying around one of those live USB sticks except the host would only act as a dumb terminal of sorts for the phone and no reboot would be required. It's likely this could even be done by the phone looking like a network connection to the host and the dock software just running in a browser.

I'm still not sure I'd carry around a netbook (or something similar) just to dock my phone to rather than just using it's native browser but it would be nice to dock my phone to a friends PC for example in a pinch.
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The problem I see with your idea about "docking" with your normal computer is that it might be too complicated for the "average" user. The idea that you can just dock your phone and a full desktop experience instantaneously popping up is something that anyone can understand.

If they could get a dumb laptop that I can dock into at a cheap price that would work with future generation of phones, I'd definitely consider using that as a travel computing device. It gives me everything that I need for comfortable computing on the go: keyboard, large screen, and internet connectivity (probably the most important). I have a netbook that I take around when I go places, but it's too slow. I could get a Macbook Air, but it's too much money to spend on a travel computer (at least for me right now). I think this is nice solution for this use case.
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Excellent point. While I'm comfortable with the concept of running a small, VNC-type client off the phone on a host computer to gain access many may not be. It would have to be dead-simple and need to work without having to deal with drivers or installing software. A dedicated dock does not have these problems, you just plug in and go.

I haven't seen Atrix dock in person as I imagine Peter has so I don't know if it's significantly more portable than your average netbook. If not then I still feel that if I have to carry a netbook-sized accessory with me I'd like it to be, well, a netbook and not a brainless dock that only does something useful once I plug in my phone. I am also a little worried that it will be overpriced. It needs to be $150-$200 otherwise why not get a netbook instead?

Peter was making the point that docks need to be universal and ubiquitous and I still feel a software approach might be better able to achieve these goals.
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In one of the demo video, it shows that once, you dock, you get a window pop up which shows exactly where your phone is left off with. The argument that you loose that screen for phone task is invalid.
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That's pretty cool but you still don't have a second screen even if you can see the state that the phone is in. The phone screen itself isn't usable. If I have to carry two things then I want two independently, simultaneously functional devices not one or the other. But that's just me...

This is going to be polarizing. Some people really want a phone dock to be sure. I'm not criticizing them or saying that it's a stupid idea. I just don't find that much functionality in carrying around a dock. I can't wait to see the Atrix ship so we can all play with it but I remain a bit skeptical.
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Referring to your point of having the dock be implemented in software... I think that already exists! You can use a VNC server on your phone and share your screen and control it from your laptop. Check it out... www.xda­-developers.com­/android­/android­-vnc­-server­-...
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When I saw this phone I instantly got excited about the possibilities of what can come of this. It was a nice to see a company finally think outside of the box with Android. I however did even consider the possibility of fragmentation with them. Unfortunately I think it's already begun and Motorola is the one to fire the first shot with the Bionic not supporting the Laptop Dock.
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Hi all, thanks peter for the world of ideas you kicked off there! But there is another player in the field besides "google": the european union and a couple of cell phone makers (including apple inc.) got together to decide on a common recharging standard for phone: mini/micro usb! That could be the entrance (and output) for dumb docking docks. What do you guys think?
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I think this idea fails already for one simple reason. It's a physical connection. Combine wireless HD video with the concept of blue tooth pairing and make your "dumb terminal" connect to your phone completely wirelessly. You set up to a terminal search for "phones" select yours and put in your pass code. You terminate your session and it forgets the connection.
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Well I am sure that is one thing except this puts a whole other linux system on the device and runs it like a computer. The way you are talking is just a terminal? Or does it have a UI?
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When is this Phone Available?
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maybe feb
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The iPhone / iPod / iPad system does have interchangeable docks that work with all devices for data transfer (but not necessarily for recharging, depending upon your device. And 3rd-party vendors are coming up with a variety of solutions for using IOS devices for specific needs.

1) keyboard controller unit for iPhone / iPod synthesizer app

2) pro audio interface for iPad

While I would love to be able to use an Android phone for simple word processing with an external docking station, the sheer number of vendors building Android-compatible products, and the number of versions of Android means it's likely to be a PITA for some time.
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What a great vision! Now the Motorola Atrix really makes sense. Smart phones, dumb docks - great idea!
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You hit the nail on the head. I really think that your on to something. Maybe so it is easier it should be a wireless solution. Maybe a Bluetooth/Display Port/Ethernet wireless. Maybe something the IEEE or WIFI Alliance can handle?
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Google should definitely make the app "Google Dock", or some "dock standard", Android update 2.*, et al. as opposed to Motorolla or any other Manufacture. By utilizing a common bluetooth standard would be idea; rooting around various keyboard compatibility issues, etc.. Also the phone can be plugged in so as to deal with battery drainage issues that happen during bluetooth use.

FYI... When Motorolla got the award I was both pleased and a little miffed. I applaud them for product design on the Xoom and other products, but when it comes to software UI they get a thumbs down. The main reason why I say this is because of the additional layers on top of Android. I've messed around with Motorlla's layer and find it pretty annoying and not quite the easiest to understand. I'm sure with another week of use and I'd get it, but that's besides the point. Some of the UI layers make the user experience vary significantly. During the holidays I was fortunate enough to try many different Android phones; switching from carrier to carrier and phone to phone within the 30 day return policy we have here in California (Samsung Galaxy S "Fascinate", Samsung Galaxy S "Epic" 4G, htc Droid Incredible, and finally the htc EVO 4G). I ended up with the EVO mainly for the reasons that Sprint has better coverage both at work & home, this coupled with the preference to htc's "sense" UI over Samsung's "TouchWiz UI". Swype, yes yes.. but with the firmware update the EVO now also has Swype! Swyper no swypie! ;)
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For Hardware standard , it is a not hard thing for google,such as usb charger for cellphone universally.What google encounter is that define UX at between phone and laptop at android, Used limited screen in cellphone,people need some instant and short message related to Email,SMS,SNS,location etc,on the other hand,The reason why laptop is still popular today is productivity,we can handle the same content by copy and paste at multi-programs easily,It is a good opportunity for google that can provide major service at cloud such as Docs,Mail,Maps etc.I think google will eventually merge two OS(android and chrome os) into one in following some years.
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Not sure why you feel Chrome OS is at odds with your vision. Chrome OS is just a browser running web apps; it'd be the perfect complement to a relatively low-power device. As for a dock that could "turn your smartphone into a tablet, one that connects to your car for hands-free calls, GPS, and music, home entertainment and gaming docks for the living rom," you're basically describing the reign of the Apple 30-pin connector. There's a CEA-sponsored push for an alternative connector (PDMI) but it's seen very little adoption so far. I've been really disappointed at how Google hasn't taken the lead on this but I guess they want to stay out of the manufacturing game. Google may have dropped the ball on this one, but I wouldn't be surprised if MS turns to a vertical integration model like Apple in the next couple of years to compete. They've got the hardware chops; they've got the software chops. They're putting tight hardware restrictions around WP7 phones. They should stop pussyfooting around and get on with it already.

Got sidetracked for a second. I guess ultimately I figure what you're proposing is a bit confused. If we're headed back to the future with cloud computing, who cares where you're accessing web apps from? I don't see what extra benefit is derived from docking your personal phone to a dumb terminal.
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My thought is this. Yes a standard would be necessary; but hasn't Motorola already defined the standard? I have not personally seen the device, but I believe there is nothing special about the connectors. It is just a mini HDMI port for video and mini USB port for data and audio right? Done, Both of those are standard connectors, nothing proprietary. The device doesn't have to nest directly into a cradle (although it is much more cool if it does.)

Yes Apple is going to want to push their 32 pin connector. Although they have gotten behind the European initiative to standardize on mini USB for charging. but don't you think this a system that LG, Samsung, Dell, HP, Asus and HTC could all get behind? Most of them use these sorts of connections already for different kinds of devices.
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I think that since the need for human sight to see larger things is in conflict with the need for portable devices to be smaller, the ideal device display would be projected onto either a flat surface or holographically. Reading news from the last few years, this doesn't sound too far off. Maybe in another 10 years it will be a reality. The other direction I see personal devices going is straight into the eye, so as to make your phone more private while still filling your field of vision. There's no reason devices couldn't do both, assuming the size of components continue to shrink.
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It's funny that you talk about the Foleo failing. It never even got a chance to fail, partly because you dumped all over it before it shipped.
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