Alcatel have just announced a product that I think, or perhaps I hope, is going to be the future of computing.
Not so much in the detailed design of this specific product, rather in the concept of computing that it embodies. Which is, essentially, that our smartphone could, possibly should, be our main and possibly only computing device.
As The Register reports (disclosure, I also contribute there) Alcatel’s new device is something of a dumb terminal into which you plug your phone:
Alcatel had the distinction of previewing the least powerful device at MWC. At the mobile extravaganza, the French firm unveiled the prototype of the Hero, a dumb terminal which interfaces to its Hero mobile phone to provide a full screen and keyboard.
The device is called a smartbook, but all the smarts actually reside in the handset. There is an NFC-alike technology which pairs the device to the phone and from then on the unit is a terminal to the Alcatel Hero phone.
I don’t expect this particular device to start flying off the shelves in iPhone style numbers. However I do have a feeling in my water that this is going to be the way that the entire computing industry is going to develop. At least as far as the personal computer is concerned. Canonical has had much the same idea with parts of its plans for an Ubuntu phone that then connects to peripherals. The Asus Padfone is clearly along much the same lines.
The basic observation might start with the point that today’s top of the line smartphone contains as much computing power as a Cray of the early 1990s. Something which is enough to meet the daily computing needs of pretty much all of us. And if that’s not quite true today then it clearly and obviously will be in a year or two. Yes, those of us rendering animations at home might require a little more oomph but the standard office tasks, photo albums and internet grazing can all be accomplished with the computing power that we have in our hot little hands.
The two things that phones are seriously bad at are visual presentation and data input. The visual problem is that they’ve all got small, obviously, screens as a result of their portability. This can be solved by having a port that allows them to be plugged into a standard monitor. The data input problem is that in order to type we need a larger, physical, keyboard and perhaps a mouse. These can be bought for $15 in stores across the nation and again, it’s only the connection (plus, perhaps, a bit of programming) that needs to be added. And of course there are things like Bluetooth that can provide that connection.
Which leads to my speculation that this is the way that things are going to go. It might be another generation or two before the processing power and memory capacities of a hand held smartphone are truly competitive with today’s desktop machine. But I don’t think anyone doubts that they’re going to get there. In which case, why are we actually buying the two separate boxes? We have the processing power and memory that we need in our phones. We just need to be able to hook that up to the more productive input and output devices of a keyboard and a larger screen.
The end state of this vision is that we all have however many sets of peripherals as we do places that we want to be able to do serious work on a computer at. But we all also have only one “processing pack” or actual computer, our phone, which we carry with us around those various different places that we might want to work at. We end up buying not a computer for home, our bosses one for us to use in the office, rather we have just the one computer, in that four or five inch size format, that we plug into the necessary peripherals at each place.
The one thing I am having great trouble envisioning though is how we go from here to there. For it’s not obviously in our interests if the various manufacturers come out with incompatible peripherals. If I’ve got to buy the Alcatel, instead of the Ubuntu or Asus, version in order to work with my Alcatel phone then I’m going to miss out on all the benefits of standardisation: like how cheap all of those peripherals will be. But it’s also not obviously in the interests of any one manufacturer to encourage the standardisation of interfaces into those peripherals. No one really wants to be in the business of selling standardised parts in competition with every two bit electronics line in the Far East as PC makers themselves have been complaining for the past decade.
So while I like the concept and can see the desirability of the end state I’m really not sure at all about how we bring it all about. Phones do, or very soon indeed will do, contain all of the computing power that anyone’s likely to need as a “personal computer”. It’s just the input and output problems that remain an those could be solved by a method of integrating with current standard PC peripherals. But how do we create the incentives for someone to start building such devices?
[Image credit: Alcatel]