Elgan: In Search of The Smart Phone Laptop

Palm tried it with Foleo and failed; will Apple do better?

In the past two years, cell phone and laptop companies have unveiled breathtaking innovations—from 24-hour battery laptops to dual-screen laptops to "augmented reality" cell phone applications.

Despite these advancements, the industry has failed to solve the oldest and most central problem of mobility: How to add a larger keyboard and screen to a tiny cell phone.

A new IBM survey of 600 desktop PC users in the U.S., China and the U.K. indicates that most users would be willing to replace their PCs with smart phones for using the Internet. Some 71 percent of respondents said they plan to increase their use of mobile devices for social networking, instant messaging and reading the news.

The study found that a large screen and large keyboard—mutually exclusive features on a handset—are among the most desirable features for mobile Internet access.

IBM advises in its report that "device makers need to think about how to integrate technologies such as nano projectors and projected virtual keyboards." But this advice probably reflects the direction of IBM's own research rather than actual demand on the part of users. I believe users want real big screens and real big keyboards, not projected or virtual ones.

Palm inventor Jeff Hawkins tried to solve this problem last year by proposing the Palm Foleo, a Linux-based mini-laptop that would have connected to the Internet via a Bluetooth-connected Palm smart phone. And what did he get for his trouble? Scorn and ridicule.

The Foleo had its own processor and memory, as well as generic office applications, browser software and e-mail application. It was an "instant-on" device, usable seconds after being switched on.

The Foleo was roundly criticized for being too expensive ($499) and too inflexibly dependent on the use of a Palm phone while at the same time unable to actually run Palm applications.

Palm retreated in shame, burying the project but promising to resurrect it someday. We'll see.

Suddenly, however, the general goal of adding bigger screens and keyboards to cell phones has come back in the form of rumors, projects and even real products. It looks like the industry may be serious this time. But will users buy?

Here's what's going on.

The AIM Olo

A rumor circulated recently that a company called Active Innovation Management was working on a laptop-like gadget called the Olo.

The concept showed a sort of dock in front of the laptop's keyboard where an iPhone fit with the iPhone screen flush with the surface of the plastic. Once snapped into the dock, the laptop would actually use the iPhone's processor, memory and other resources as the "brains" of the laptop.

The product sent a ripple of chatter through the blogosphere, prompting the company to post a statement on its Web site saying that the Olo is nothing more than a design concept.

In hindsight, it's pretty obvious that this was always a product without a future. It's just not Apple's style to open up its APIs to some obscure company for building what is essentially competitive hardware. Something like this would come from Apple, or from nobody. And speaking of something like this coming from Apple ...

The Apple Netbook

When the idea of an Apple "netbook" came up on a quarterly conference call this week, CEO Steve Jobs said two intriguing things. First, he said the iPhone does a lot of what a netbook does. And second, Jobs said Apple has "some pretty interesting ideas" in the tiny computer space.

The idea that Apple views the iPhone itself as a netbook and that the company is working on something in this space that Jobs finds "interesting" raises the question: Exactly what is Apple working on?

One possibility, which I've been predicting for quite a while now, is essentially a giant iPhone—a tablet computer with iPhone-like multi-touch.

Another possibility is something akin to the Olo—a laptop that integrates the iPhone. Interestingly, the newest Apple MacBooks have glass trackpads that are larger than the previous ones—in fact, about the size of the glass on an iPhone.

It would be easy to imagine a next-generation MacBook with a pop-out trackpad that could be replaced by an iPhone. In other words, the space where the removable trackpad would go could be an iPhone dock.

The advantage of this would be convenient synchronization, tethering (the use of the iPhone's 3G connection for laptop connectivity to the Internet), and other features sorely missing with the current lineup.

It's an appealing idea, but pure speculation and guesswork at this point.

The Celio Redfly

The Celio Redfly is a $399 (or half that price if you buy one before the end of the month), Foleo-like device that works with many Windows Mobile smart phones. It has an 8-in. screen, keyboard and trackpad. It connects to the Internet through the phone, which tethers via USB cable or Bluetooth.

Like the Foleo, Redfly is an instant-on device with an advertised battery life of eight hours. It doesn't synchronize the data on your smart phone, but accesses and uses the files on the phone directly. In other words, it's unlike the original Foleo concept in that it's for running the apps and using the data on your phone, rather than running its own apps and data, but with a bigger keyboard and screen.

You can look up phone numbers on the Redfly and even dial the phone, but you have to pick up the phone to speak.

The IMOVIO iKit

IMOVIO launched this week a clamshell device that looks like a tiny laptop, much smaller than the smallest subnotebook. It's called the iKit, and it enables you to surf the Web using your phone's Internet connection via Bluetooth or any available Wi-Fi connection.

The $175 Linux-based system has a webcam built in and comes with a Web browser, e-mail application and instant messaging.

The feature set and price of the iKit are appealing, but the keyboard and screen are probably not big enough to thrill users.

Clearly something is happening in that gaping void left by the failed Palm Foleo project. But whether major players like Apple get in the game and provide leadership in this nascent category—or whether users will respond to new products—remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: Users want bigger screens and bigger keyboards on their tiny smart phones. Is that asking too much?

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact him at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

This story, "Elgan: In Search of The Smart Phone Laptop" was originally published by Computerworld .

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