Smartphones and Dumb Docks: A Proposal
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.
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. ;)
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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! ;)
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.
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.