Gadgets & Gears

The 10-Year Quest to Make Your Phone Do Everything

Written by techgoth

In May of 2007, a few weeks before Apple’s iPhone hit shelves, Palm founder Jeff Hawkins took the stage at the All Things D conference and unveiled a new gizmo: a “mobile companion” that paired with your phone. It had no buttons or lights, weighed less than any laptop on the market, and you could open it with one finger. You’d never have to wait for it to boot, and the battery would last all day. It looked like a laptop, but worked like your phone. It was called Foleo. The $500 accessory was little more than a screen and a keyboard, with a cheap processor and little memory; it got all its data and connectivity from the Treo in Hawkins’ pocket.

Hawkins said he’d been thinking about the Foleo for five years, after having a simple insight: smartphones were going to take over the world, but people would still need big screens and full keyboards. “The smartphone is a truly capable computer,” he told the crowd, “but sometimes you need to be able to look at that big spreadsheet.” He knew that eventually, the processor, memory, graphics, wireless radios, and storage inside your phone would be powerful enough to do everything you’d want from a laptop. So why buy everything twice? Ultimately, Hawkins imagined the Foleo as a sprawling, open system, powered by Linux software, that any phone could dock into and take over. Palm even planned to support the upcoming iPhone, which the folks at Palm thought was crippled with no hardware keyboard.

The Foleo inspired some excitement, even though it was expensive and couldn’t do much more than browse the web and send emails. Sadly, it never got a chance to prove itself—new leadership arrived at Palm soon after, and killed the product before shipping a single device.

The Palm Foleo, next to the Treo that supplied all its power.

Just for kicks, imagine the alternate universe where the Foleo was a smashing success. You might wake up in the morning, snatch your phone off its charging dock, and plug it into your TV to watch the morning news while you get ready. Once you got to the office, you’d drop it into your workstation, where you’d have a dormant mouse, keyboard, and monitor waiting to be activated. You could throw presentations from your phone onto a TV using the dock on the conference room table. Starbucks might have a dozen docks in every store for aspiring screenwriters. You’d buy one incredible device, with all the power you need, that breathes life into all others.

Even a decade later, which is several eons in tech years, plenty of companies and developers believe in this idea. They see a generation of people coming online with no experience or need for traditional computers, who might be interested in an inexpensive keyboard and screen that draw power and intelligence from your all-powerful smartphone. Others say nobody cares, that people are happy with both a laptop and a smartphone, and that combining them is a waste of engineering effort. But a few people, including some of the folks who have been working on this stuff the longest, say they’ve been solving the wrong problem this whole time. Docking your phone into a laptop isn’t the point. The point is to remove the borders between our gadgets, to make them all work together. To turn every screen, keyboard, and surface into exactly the gadget you need, for exactly as long as you need it.

You Put The Thing In The Other Thing

After the Foleo’s early demise, tech giant after tech giant tried its hand at making these adaptable gadgets. Asus built an entire line of devices under the brand Padfone, with phones that became tablets and tablets that became laptops and phones that become tablets that became laptops. Microsoft made the feature a standard part of Windows, called Continuum. Canonical raised more than $12 million toward the Ubuntu Edge project, promising “smartphone and desktop PC in one state-of-the-art device” before shuttering the project entirely. Kickstarter is a breeding ground (and graveyard) for empty-shell laptops like the Superbook and Mirabook. Most recently, Samsung made docking one of the key features of its new Galaxy S8 smartphone, through a platform it calls DeX. Drop your phone into the DeX Station, connect it to any monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and go to work. Apple recently filed a patent for “an electronic accessory device available to extend and expand usefulness of a portable computing device.”

The Samsung DeX Station docks your phone into a PC setup.

So far, every attempt has ended somewhere between obscurity and outright failure. For a long time, the problem was technology. The chips just weren’t powerful enough, and as Shuttleworth points out, “plugging your phone into a station to use it as a laptop immediately made it less useful as a phone.” Now, thanks to ultra-fast wireless tech like WiGig and mobile processors that match the speed of your laptop, connecting your phone to a monitor is simple and cable-free. The bigger challenge now is the software, making the apps and interfaces play nicely across different inputs and form factors. But thanks to companies like Jide and Andromium, which are working on adapting Android for just those purposes, even that’s getting better.

But there’s a different, more fundamental question still unanswered: Is this a good idea? The whole dockable-phone concept relies on the notion that smartphones are too small for serious tasks, which just isn’t true anymore—if it ever was. Making smartphone software more like Windows or MacOS is like building a self-driving car with manual transmission, or trying to turn Snapchat into an email client. A generation of people has no experience with right-clicking, and doesn’t mind typing on a touchscreen. Those users are more likely to want access to camera filters and voice assistants than QWERTY keyboards and function keys.

Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth, at least, is convinced keyboard and mouse are here to stay. “You will not obsolete a form factor,” he says. TV didn’t kill the radio, and touchscreens won’t kill laptops. In fact, he says, the whole point of making all the form factors work together is that you can use whatever you want, without being stuck in someone else’s idea of efficiency.

Besides, keyboard and mouse is just one part of the pitch for these combo gadgets. Shuttleworth says Canonical found in its Ubuntu Edge research that “any duplication of personal information is a pain.” Logging into Gmail in six places, syncing your contacts, finding files on all your devices—nobody wants that. You don’t need a phone so much as you need a quick, reliable way to identify yourself and access your stuff.

That’s where this vision gets exciting. Long term, it’s bigger than laptops, and bigger than phones. It’s more like that scene in the otherwise terrible Total Recall remake, in which Kate Beckinsale places her hand on a rainy car and a video call instantly pops up on the window. Boiled all the way down, it’s just this: You carry some gadget, a phone or a watch or a pendant or an implant in your palm, and use it to animate any screen or surface you encounter. Your computer wears displays like clothes, changing them as necessary.

That’s what Iqbal Arshad, the former head of product development at Motorola, had in his mind when his team started working on a phone called Atrix. This was about 2009, when Nvidia’s new dual-core processors, which could for the first time do more than one thing simultaneously, promised a huge uptick in mobile performance. Arshad and his team wanted to build a gadget that took advantage, that just did more stuff. They tried two: a tablet, and a dockable phone. But Arshad was more excited about the phone. Atrix, connected into the back of a Foleo-like companion called a Lapdock, ran new software called Webtop and worked like a laptop.

The Atrix was a powerful handset full of forward-looking features, but didn’t take off—the $500 Lapdock accessory was too expensive, and the Webtop software too limited. Not long after, Google bought Motorola and shuttered the project. Google was working on Chrome OS and Android, and had no need for another platform. But Arshad never stopped thinking about what the Atrix could have been. He’d been watching as people stopped keeping data on their phones and started streaming everything: movies from Netflix, songs from Spotify, files from Dropbox, photos from Google.

At the very beginning of the internet, users connected through so-called “thin clients,” simple machines that existed only to connect to the mainframe. The world is headed that way again, and Arshad figured all people really needed to have with them was a way to connect to the internet. “The phone becomes your computing platform,” he says, “and you have everything in the cloud and some stuff on your phone, and you should be able to take over any screen.” Grab any piece of glass you can find, and that instantly becomes your computer.

Primitive versions of this interoperability already exist. You log into an Android phone and it’ll pull down your email, contacts, and apps. If you connect your AirPods to your iPhone, they’re also automatically paired to your iPad and Mac. Google’s working on ways to unify Android and Chrome OS, if not through universal hardware then at least by making your apps and data available across devices. Apple’s Handoff and Continuity features do the same between your iPhone and Mac. When this stuff works, it feels like magic.

Mostly, though, the world has gone the other way. The massive, all-consuming size of the smartphone market has made it possible to buy powerful chips and wireless radios for basically nothing. So rather than build less technology into things, companies built more. Pretty soon, everything from your dryer to your doorknob to your Dockers will have some kind of connectivity and processing inside. The idea that you’ll only have one computer that does everything is preposterous—soon you might own dozens, even hundreds.

Now that gadgets are cheap commodities, what users really need is a way to make them all work together. “I don’t think that this is so much of an integration of two different devices, with docks and stuff like that,” Arshad says. “It’s a service layer that runs seamlessly across devices. And it’s powered by AI.”

The vision is this: As soon as you hit the power button on your computer, the front-facing camera could turn on, use computer vision to identify you, and then instantly pick up where you left off on your phone. When you ask your Echo for a wine recommendation, it would know exactly what you like, and which recipes you looked up on your iPad earlier. When you put on an augmented-reality headset, it could instantly personalize your avatar, adjust the lenses, and start Elite Dangerous up from where you just died on your Xbox. Something has to bring all those services together, to make everything accessible everywhere. To make it so you don’t need any gadgets, because there are gadgets everywhere. All you need to do is log in.

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