The Next Level of Convergence?

Wouldn't it be cool if I could plug a keyboard and monitor into my phone....

An unwelcome surprise

Laptop crashes are something I usually only hear stories about.

That is of course, until last night when my Dell just wouldn’t boot — only 5 weeks out of the warranty of course — go figure.

I went to bed hopeful that the data on the drive was still intact. I have back-ups, but that is never a fun exercise.

Data backups are kind of like life insurance — you need it, but you never want to use it, if you know what I mean.

I put the hard drive into a USB-caddy and was pleased to see all of my data happily residing on the hard drive.

Breathing Easier

Now that my immediate concern of data loss was in the rear view mirror, my mind moved to my current situation. My data was in good order, but I didn’t have another laptop into which I could slide the hard drive.

As I walked around the office looking for a surrogate machine to house my disk drive, I mused that an increasing amount of the work I do on a day-to-day basis is actually done on remote servers anyway. I just use the laptop for a keyboard, mouse and monitor — not exactly cloud computing, but approaching that.

For instance, this article is written via a web form online — no word processor required. Thankfully spell-check is included.

Web development is usually done via ssh and vi; or via Remote Desktop for connecting to applications hosted on remote Windows servers.

Ironically, mobile development generally requires local computing resources:

  • iPhone requires an Intel based Mac
  • Blackberry requires a Windows machine
  • Android applications can be built on Windows, Mac, or Linux
  • Palm webOS can be built on Windows or Mac. However, the new Ares development environment for webOS runs entirely in the browser. We’ll look at this innovative development platform in more detail in a future column. I have taken a quick peak at it and in a word – it is “cool”.
  • And for Symbian? The last time I checked it was Windows — it’s been quite a while since I’ve ventured into the land of Series 60.

So, while much of my work can be done “in the cloud”, it appears that I still have need of a laptop for my mobile development work. The truth is that I am not a huge fan of cloud computing just yet — I have perhaps a false sense of security knowing that my data is nearby. But what if there were another way?

Real computing convergence

Every day I pack up my laptop into my backpack — twice. Once to head to the office. And once to come home. I spend a lot of time at the keyboard in both places — too much in fact. Lugging the backpack around gets old. In fact, my favorite coat has to be retired because I’ve worn a hole in the shoulder from lugging my bag around every day.

What if I didn’t need to carry this bag everywhere? What if my phone really were smart and became my computer?

Devices have come a very long way over the past few years. Storage is dirt cheap — and compact. Processor speeds are improving, networks are faster. Insert generic hyperbole about Moore’s Law, here, etc. The point is that the laptop of today may just be unnecessary for many work profiles.

The laptop may not be easily jettisoned for people who need to do significant amounts of image processing or other computationally intense activities, but the majority of users send email, write documents, pretend to use spreadsheets and surf the ‘net.

Years ago when I first saw the Qualcomm Palm phone I thought it was the coolest thing. Ugly? You bet. But it made sense. I had a Palm Pilot in my bag and a Nokia candy-bar phone in my pocket. I rarely used the Palm Pilot because it wasn’t top of mind. Sure I would take it out and beam a card from time to time — it was the hip thing to do. But not until I got that big, ugly Palm phone did I get real use out of the “PDA”.

Today, the idea of using a smartphone is no longer novel — it is the norm. Perhaps we can take it to the next level?

I would sure love to just use my smartphone as my computing device and have a simple means to cradle it on the desktop, connecting a monitor, keyboard and mouse which I would never have to carry around.

The hardware isn’t quite ready yet, but it could be before long. Power really isn’t a concern because I can plug my phone into a power supply on the desk — the phone would just have to run in two modes — full power when connected to the grid and in “slower” mode when running on battery.

As for an operating system for this computing platform, today I would be split between Android and WebOS. They both have their merits. While Android has a much bigger market and mind share and more horse-power for more graphically intense applications like games, WebOS may just be the better platform for many types of applications and user behaviors. Either way, I look forward to watching the market mature to this point.

In some ways we are there already. My phone is with me more than any person, place or thing. Profound really how invasive this device is to my life.

What do you think? Could you ditch your laptop altogether and imagine using your phone as the center of your computing universe?

Comments on "The Next Level of Convergence?"


Your bullet about \”iPhone requires an Intel based Mac\” is incorrect. I have an \’older\’ PowerPC-based PowerMac and my iTunes & iPhone work just fine together.


WebOS is based on Linux which already has drivers for bluetooth keyboards and mice. Using a wireless keyboard and mouse is just a matter of getting the device drivers enabled and configured correctly. Someone from Palm would probably have to enable the feature for it to work. The hardest part would be making it easy and bulletproof to use.

Video is harder because the bandwidth is so much higher…


If anyone ever asks me which laptop they should buy – I invariably tell them to get a netbook, usb keyboard,mouse and monitor. Having HDMI, USB outlets on smartphones – would entice me.

You need apps designed to take advantage of a grid. Whether that be the office network or something in the cloud.

I guess Google, have seen the browser to be a common platform. And why not, what else do I pick; GTK, QT etc?

I do think the browser needs an improved interface to feel a bit more OS like. Plugins should just: plugin, it needs to be intuitive to install apps, data needs to be portable, like you said for syncing. Without comprimising security.

Desktops now ooze power, and for what? Eye candy like aero, compiz or for playing HD content? What a waste of energy.

I have a friend who runs Win98. I occasionally try to get him to install XYZ linux, but he has no reason to. And despite some stability, what\’s been happening for the last 10 years on the desktop in terms of practical innovation? Not alot.


Good thoughts (bad proofing though, did you really mean to say usually something I usually in the first sentence?).

[Also can\'t help commenting that since your laptop drive is readable, the problem is most likely the boot manager (GrUB?), easily repaired by booting RIP Linux from CD.]

But back to the thrust of the article. I have an LG Lotus J2ME phone that goes a long way towards being a laptop replacement: 3G, email, web (sort of), even youtube, IM (multiprotocol) plus PIM plus phone plus camera etc. etc. It is buggy, crashes regularly and many of the Java apps have apparent memory leaks and it is still a very useful tool (or do I mean toy?). And my files live nicely on the large SD card. Yes, sometimes a real monitor, keyboard and mouse would be a boon.

I believe that neither of the OS\’s you mention will be \’the one\’. There may be no \’one\’: but the winner has not yet appeared (Chromium OS in Java?) Let\’s see.


I think you are onto something. Many smartphones that have bluetooth could/should accommodate bluetooth keyboard and mouse. Now, some of them are coming with HDMI video out.


You didn\’t mention anything about Maemo. I have my Nokia N900 and I am able to develop right on the phone!


If we had both these Bluetooth profiles supported in the smartphone, then a remote keyboard and monitor would be possible:

Basic Imaging Profile (BIP)
Human Interface Device Profile (HID)

I expect the interactive performance would be sluggish, but it would be very interesting to see. I\’d love to see this on a Multi-CPU smartphone design like the Motorola \”Droid\” Android 2.0 from Verizon.


USB integration might work better than Bluetooth. Imagine a little USB docking station that you slip your phone into at your desk, where you have a monitor and keyboard connected to it… and perhaps also a LAN connection for those locations where WLAN frequency bands are too polluted to get decent performance.


Thanks for the feedback — this is great.

@ddelv: I fixed the poorly written first line, thanks :).

@urlflynn: an intel based mac is required for _development_ – which was the point of that section; sorry if that was not clear.

A dock with Power/USB/HDMI – that is what I had in mind – and WIFI for connectivity.


The screen and battery are both WAY to small for my needs. I even feel cramped screen-wise on a netbook. I\’m not saying that there aren\’t useful apps that can fit into that form factor, or users for whom it may be enough. A smart phone will just never replace my laptop, especially since my laptop already replaced my desktop.


@jandersonlee: the idea is that you would plug your smartphone into a dock to use an external keyboard, mouse, monitor, etc.


I\’m hoping netbooks/laptop/desktop OSs and devices learn a thing or two from smart phones – which have carefully crafted, easy to use innovative interfaces. Hence my moan about current desktops OSs.

I\’m also wanting, something between the two worlds, perhaps a small tablet. Call me old fashioned, but I feel I can\’t justify the expense of a smart phone right now – I\’d prefer a portable computer.

How about some new peripherals for these devices? Light projected displays /keyboards, or perhaps virtual reality glasses – and hand gestures?


I think it is almost there. We should be able to get bluetooth keyboards and mice running on our Android devices soon. All we need is a minor hardware update with a dongle for HDMI or similar. AFAIK, Nvidia is already working on a GPU with ARM core(s). This should do the trick for display.

It would be more of a cloud-computing workstation for me. I would still be connecting to other servers and desktops for the real work. I\’m almost ready to ditch the netbook now.

I wonder if the Archos tablet is already there. I think it has a good quality video out (HDMI?). It might not be much work to get it to speak to BlueTooth keyboards and mice.

I do think that a dongle interface providing USB and Video would be a great thing to put on a small tablet/phone.


I work at a small community college (in IT) and predict that within a short few years, we\’ll be able to eliminate most of our desktop computers in favor of docking stations that students will just plug their phones into.

I just picked up a samsung moment (android) phone with an 800Mhz processor. It has the horsepower to do 90% of what 80% of users need to do. We just need to get keystrokes in, and video out.

In three years, even the netbook will be a dinosaur.


A lot of good thoughts. I would love to be able to plug my Iphone into my Linux machine and NOT use Itunes (The world\’s worst UI) to get applications – much easier to just do it from the web.


I\’ve been interested in the idea of plugging accessories into a smartphone for a while now. Keyboards, mice, monitors, scanners, printers and external storage drives come to mind. These could communicate with the phone via wifi, bluetooth or usb.

To attach accessories via a usb cable, the smartphone must be a usb host. Most smartphones are usb clients, not hosts. The Palm Treo 800W and the Neo Freerunner Openmoko phones are usb host capable and thus potentially could run accessories. The Nokia N810 is also reportedly usb host capable. Android OS is not currently usb host capable. The iphone might be an usb host, because http://developer.apple.com/iphone/program/accessories/ describes attaching accesories via the 30 pin connector.

A group at Washington University in St. Louis was able to attach a usb ultrasound probe to a Treo 800w for a small medical imaging device, http://news-info.wustl.edu/tips/page/normal/13928.html.

Also there is an iphone app that allows you to print to a networked Epson printer.

The experimenters at hackndev.com were able to load linux onto a Treo 650 with usb host activated. Under PalmOS, this phone was just a usb client.


Having a phone and laptop requires 2 devices, having a phone only requires 3 (phone, screen and keyboard). With a X1a and a laptop I have everything I need … on top of that I have an additional backup device … AND a (portable) workstation that has replaced my desktop computer at home AND and one of them at work (i am a sysadmin, i have two … a window box and linux box and the lappy is Linux ONLY … and I have a debug station …

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