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Old 02-17-2008, 08:09 AM   #1
Bob Russell
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Minidock adds a nice display to your portable device

Okay, so the image is for a video iPod. But it's only $50 at Woot today, and illustrates a new possibility for smart phones that I long for - the portable inexpensive dock. If they can do this for such a low price, why not just adapt it to a smart phone and add the keyboard? In fact, with all the incredible hacks being done on the Asus Eee, I wonder if maybe someone experienced could combine this iPod device with a keyboard component and a custom cable to create a smart phone dock.

Why do we care? Well, what are the primary innate shortcomings of a smart phone?
1) Tiny display
2) Limited keyboard
3) Small battery
4) annoying sync problems
5) Slow and limited web browser
6) Buggy operation

The last two items will basically go away in the upcoming years as progress is made on hardware and software. But how about that. The first three items are solved with a portable clamshell mini-laptop dock. Well, "dock" is probably the wrong word because going forward, the connection will probably be more likely by high speed tether or wireless technology.

Whether you realize it or not, momentum for this type of device is building. There are already quite a few serious rumored and real attempts in the market. And it makes sense. It may make real the dream of never having to sync data again, and being able to choose your form factor in a split second while having the always-present smart phone there when you need it.

Here is a collected list of the related rumors and devices. I hope that both interest and solutions continue to expand as smart phones get better.

#1) Remote Control
First, we know that computer devices that can act as terminals for the smart phone. It is simply a software solution to let you control your USB-tethered PalmOS or WinMob smart phone with your existing laptop (or desktop). PDAReach is a PalmOS solution, and SOTI Pocket Controller seems to be an example of a WinMobile solution.

#2) Foleo
Palm, Inc's attempt at a similar Linux-PalmOS device to do the same thing was the ill-fated Foleo. But Jeff Hawkins, inventer or the Palm Pilot, said it was his best idea ever so clearly he had more in store than the limited functionality Foleo, which never did make it to market. Supposedly, there is a Foleo II on the way when it can share the new Linux based PalmOS with the new generation of handhelds, but there's a new investment group that might have something to say about that, and one can't really tell if Palm is seriously commmitted to it or if it's just a gesture to save face. It could be sort of like when a guy gets humiliated after a sporting contest, and he says "I'll get you next time" when he really means "I'll never pick up a tennis racket again in my life!"

#3) RedFly Companion
The Celio RedFly is creating a lot of buzz. It has some of it's own computing power under the covers, but the user can only use it to control the smart phone. It connects wirelessly or by USB tether, and (with the exception of video playback, I think) it lets you use your Windows Mobile device like a laptop... full keyboard, touchpad mouse, long lasting battery and higher resolution screen. Price is it's biggest drawback right now.

#4) I-Mate Shell
It has been reported that iMate is working on a shell for it's Ultimate line of high powered WinMobile smart phones. As Engadget puts it, it has "1024 x 768 display, larger keyboard, and 80-hour battery. Unlike Palm's charming folly, however, the i-mate shell won't contain any processing power of its own, instead serving more as an extended dock for the Ultimate devices themselves." Unfortunately, those rumors have been quiet recently. Probably because I-Mate seems to have its hands full just getting the smart phones to market.

#5) The Sonic iPod Dock
The retail price was $150, but today I see it on Woot for only $50. That's sure a lot less than the $500 range we have been seeing for companion devices. It has a clamshell form with a screen and extended battery. Add a keyboard with integrated thumbstick and you have something perfect for use with smart phones.

Such a device might need industry standards for compatibility (lest this happen to it), or might have to be tied to a particular smart phone line of products, but the hardware shouldn't be a leap. Even Dell's Axim line has the hardware to provide the external video output. (Based on design documents for the internal hardware, I was even tempted to pop open my Axim x50v and create a custom clamshell myself, but my days of having the time to try that sort of thing are long gone.)

So why aren't docks becoming the "talk of the town" yet? They are still almost completely unknown, other than the Foleo which died a quick death. Businesses should love this concept because it makes enterprise management a lot easier than a phone and a separate laptop. And, personally, I'd love to be able to use my smart phone as a computer. With a better browser capability and strong remote desktop software, I could do anything that I could do on my home computer anyway. Now that's a dream come true!
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Old 02-17-2008, 09:28 AM   #2
DMcCunney
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So why aren't docks becoming the "talk of the town" yet? They are still almost completely unknown, other than the Foleo which died a quick death. Businesses should love this concept because it makes enterprise management a lot easier than a phone and a separate laptop. And, personally, I'd love to be able to use my smart phone as a computer. With a better browser capability and strong remote desktop software, I could do anything that I could do on my home computer anyway. Now that's a dream come true!
You need two things: the hardware to let you plug your device into the dock, and software to let your device make effective use of it.

For instance, I'd love a dock with an 8" or better screen and a QWERTY keyboard I could plug my Palm OS PDA into. But without drivers that could make my installed applications display in higher resolution, there's not much point. 320x480 on an 8" screen isn't really a huge win over 320x480 on a 4" screen, and I already have an external QWERTY keyboard.

Nor does it necessarily eliminate the need for a laptop. Do equivalents of all of the applications on your laptop exist for your smartphone? Are they good enough to use instead of the ones on your laptop? Will your device have the required horsepower to run them effectively? (For example, I have a package called Documents to Go on my PDA than can display/edit Word and Excel files. Yes, it works. But the files must be converted on the fly on the device to the internal format the app uses when they are opened, and converted back when save to the card if you make changes. This is slow. And the functionality supported is a subset of full Word and Excel. They can supplement MS Office on my laptop, but cannot replace it.)

I think Palm was correct in killing the Foleo, and shouldn't have spent the time and effort on developing it in the first place. The problem was that they were wearing Treo blinders, and seeing it as an accessory to a Treo. It needed to be useful stand-alone if you didn't have a Treo. ASUS can't seem to make the eee fast enough to meet demand. If Palm had made the Foleo something like the eee, which, oh, by the way, seamlessly integrated with a Treo if you had one, I might well be using one now.

I'd love to see a redesigned Foleo running Palm OS II, usable as a stand alone product, which could also integrate with a Treo or other Palm device. I don't expect to, however: Palm seems focused completely on smartphones, and seems to think they can compete with the likes of Nokia and Samsung as a pure play smartphone manufacturer. Good luck...
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Old 02-17-2008, 10:34 PM   #3
Bob Russell
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When there is software for a Foleo to be used like a RedFly device, I'd buy in. Especially if the web browser is like a desktop browser. But until then I think I prefer something that uses the smart phone as the computer.

Remember... all your data is there. Personally, I don't want to move all my data to the cloud, and I hate constant syncing with the desktop.

Plus, with a good remote desktop application and a broadband connection, you can run all your desktop apps from the smartphone via the dock just like you were using your desktop at home. Well, actually in that case you are!

As far as the display drivers, I think that some phones now, as well as the VGA Axim PDAs, include dual display capabilities. The driver is probably either not needed (if it's simply a secondary display of the same VGA output to an LCD screen) or already there with the device, or if not, it should be reasonably straightforward to create and give it better resolution than the device had originally (like the RedFly).

So it's a race... price and capabilities of Foleo or Eee type devices with accommodation of smart phones and good web browsers, versus the price and capabilities and web browsers of the smart phones themselves via a good dock and remote desktop software solution.

Either way, I'm delighted when we get there, and I can not worry so much about syncing (except backups) and have the option of full keyboard/display. Nice remote desktop software is fine for me, so the smart phone doesn't ever have to become a fully capable desktop replacement.

We'll see...
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Old 02-18-2008, 10:55 AM   #4
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Seems to me that any solution that requires a built-in hardware phone dock is doomed to fail. Smartphone life cycles are just too short. By the time the dock and extender come out, the device it is based on will be halfway to obsolescence.

Really, I would look to a software solution that would run on an EEE-PC. Why reinvent the wheel on the hardware? Combine that with a flush-mount Bluetooth dongle, or add Bluetooth to the EEE-PC, and you are good to go.
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Old 02-18-2008, 12:27 PM   #5
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there is portable screen projection device on the market now

The Showmate by Impatica will allow you to project your SCREEN from your Blackberry and soon will allow you to be able to do the same from your Windows Mobile 5 or 6 device. Currently you can project a ppt from either device as well. So you are portable!
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Old 02-19-2008, 03:52 PM   #6
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I've suspected the reason behind vendors not taking these steps has been the inherent difficulty of keeping interface and driver software current for the swiftly-changing specs of new devices.

When we've had devices in which OS specs did not change much over time (ie, Palm Pilot, iPod,) the proliferation of accessories and expansion products can be amazing. But in the rapidly-evolving smartphone arena, no one wants to try to keep up with that haphazardly-moving target.

OTOH, no vendor wants to lock down an OS for long, for fear of falling behind in the market (or being hacked and copied). So they keep making changes, even when stability could be in their best interest. It's a tough nut to crack.
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Old 02-19-2008, 11:24 PM   #7
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Well, that's true about how certain methods could become outdated fast. But it's just a good argument for RedFly's USB/BT "docking" mechanism instead of a direct hardware screen connection until something better (faster wireless connection than BT) comes along.

As far as drivers, I don't see that vendors have had trouble keeping up with PalmOS (not that it changes much) or WinMobile. But that could be an issue, I suppose, if Android, Access and a lot of other Linux flavors all flood the market with devices. But I expect consolidation, and hopefully enough common ground among the Linux OS's that this sort of solution (using a mini laptop for an interface to the handheld computing device) is still practical to support across the board.
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Old 02-20-2008, 10:05 AM   #8
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As far as drivers, I don't see that vendors have had trouble keeping up with PalmOS (not that it changes much) or WinMobile.
Yeah, that was my point... PalmOS has been fairly light on changes over time, making it easier to add accessories to it. If the USB access point would settle down and standardize in size and layout, it would be better as a universal access point than it is now... which is not so bad.

I'd love to see more consistency and consolidation, too. I'm just not sure all the hardware vendors can be brought to that thinking, since only a few seem to be able to appreciate the advantages of consolidation. Still, the iPod is teaching a lot of vendors how advantageous consolidation and standardization can be. So anything is possible.
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