Integrated Portable Devices – The future of Smartphones and Tablets

Quote me now, this is where I think the industry will go in a number of years (I guess ~2 years from now but may be wrong on that). We’re already starting to see shifts in this direction with a great response to it.

The Atrix sounds cool where the phone docks into a laptop shell, right?

What about the Asus Eee Pad Transformer where you dock the tablet into a keyboard to create a laptop?

But wait, there’s more! We can, and will, do better!

We will see a market where you choose your phone and everything builds upon that device. We will have a variety of tablets that we can dock our phones into. We will have a variety of keyboards that we can dock our tablets into. And perhaps we will keep the Atrix idea of directly docking a phone into a keyboard/screen combo. Ultimately, all of these devices will be powered by our phones and we will get to choose the platform independent of the accessories independent of the carrier. For a very large percentage of us (not all, mind you), this device with these accessories would provide us with 100% of our personal portable computing needs, and would even apply to a significant number of us in the workplace as well. For the rest of this article, I will refer to these devices as a Phone, a Tablet Shell, and a Keyboard Dock.

A few points I want to make sure to hit on:

  1. Industry-standard compatability
  2. Cheaper upgrades, fewer wasted natural resources with more flexible accessories
  3. Single data package for all of these different “devices”

1. Industry-standard compatability
This will require some standards. Let’s call this the IPD (Integrated Portable Device) Standard and clearly we would need all parties to agree on and support these standards. A small governing body would be created (perhaps with representatives from major interested companies would be on the panel) to govern the standard.

Initially, I would suggest IPDv1 would support some pretty basic I/O with Display (out from the phone and into the tablet), sound out/in from all interconnects (speakers and microphones on Tablet Shell and/or Keyboard Dock), and user-interaction in through all interconnects (touchscreen on the Tablet Shell, keyboard/touchpad on the Keyboard Dock, perhaps other buttons too). Via this standard display-out, we could also go to a TV, similar to how we use HDMI-out on phones now (but I suggest we consider a different standard, such as DisplayPort which can still support DHCP). I would also propose some Data I/O standards so that our Tablet Shell and/or our Keyboard Dock can have additional functionality (such as a memory card reader and definitely backup capabilities, controlled by the phone OS/software, of course). Lastly, there should be standard power connections so a Tablet Shell and a Keyboard Dock can provide additional battery support, and charging, to the other devices. All of these standards would be independent of Carrier and OS so that accessories that were purchased with a 3G CDMA Android phone with Verizon would work when upgrading to a 4G Wimax WP7 phone on Sprint. We’ll see if Apple would allow their devices to meet these standards – I would hope so but doubt it.

Additionally, we would need physical standards to dock different phones into the same Tablet Shell. This would make it such that a phone with a 3.2″ screen and a phone with a 4.4″ screen can both dock into the same Tablet shell. This might require “phone cartridges” to help with this, but hopefully something better can be thought of to keep a phone securely docked into a tablet yet conveniently removed. Also, port placement would be standardized.

Lastly, these standards will need to grow over time (for example, when we need to support 3D displays, the display interconnect standard might change), so there needs to be a clear versioning of these standards to prevent confusion of what is and is not supported. So if IPDv1 was what I proposed, then perhaps IPDv2 would add 3D support, ethernet support, and support up to 5″ phone screens (or rather, a phone with an increased maximum set of dimensions). Ideally, these standards would not change on a frequent basis, and there should be a very forgiving level of backwards-compatability (for example, an IPDv2 phone that supports 3D technology should still work, albeit in 2D, with a IPDv1 Tablet Shell). These standards should be tightly controlled/patrolled to prevent devices/accessories being released that aren’t fully-compatible with what they claim to be.

2. Cheaper upgrades, fewer wasted natural resources with more flexible accessories
Since at upgrade time you can continue using your previous accessories with newer phones, this will result in a cheaper upgrade for the user as well as fewer wasted natural resources. This is a win for all of us. For those of us who care about the environment, a win. For those of us who want to save money as a consumer, a win. Those of us who want both a 10″ and a 7″ tablet for different times, a win.

But what about manufacturers who make a lot of money on accessories? Well, let’s look at that since this will fail without their support and adoption. We have 3 primary groups of people who make money off of accessories: Phone Manufacturers (Motorola, etc.), Third-party Manufacturers (Seido, etc.), and Carriers/Resellers (who tend to rebadge and/or resell products from the first two groups). For parties in the first two groups here, I claim this is a win because this will have little negative impact on the current market of gel cases, perfect-fitting car docks, screen protectors, etc. where they currently make money (those accessories would not be IPD-compliant and still have their own market). It would affect them in two ways: (1) this would create some new product areas that these manufacturers can create, specifically Keyboard Docks, and (2) this should increase sales in the tablet/laptop accessories area since it lowers the barrier of entry for new users to obtain tablets (which would still need gel cases and screen protectors). For Tablet Shells, this would now open up this accessories markets a bit and let screen manufacturers create and sell what they specialize in, profit in, and can do best – create screens with interfaces to display stuff on them without hurting manufacturers of the other legacy-type accessories. For the third group, the carriers/resellers, well, this just gives them more product to sell and profit on.

3. Single data package for all of these different “devices”
For the user, this could save them some money by not requiring 3 different data packages to keep a phone/tablet/laptop online while traveling. Since everything happens through the phone, only the phone would need a data package. Even if not saving money, it would at least be easier and less confusing for the user. So for the user, this is a win. What about the carrier? Well, this is a tough one but I still think this is a win since expectations are that carriers are moving more and more towards tiered data plans. AT&T has already done this and Verizon has given all indications that it will be as well. This tiered data plan would fit perfectly with Integrated Portable Devices. And this still doesn’t prevent carriers from offering a Premier Unlimited Data package. In fact, I think it would be wise for them to do so and just to consider what this might mean for them (i.e. the exact reason why we’re all expecting them to move to tiered plans).

Please comment below and let us all know what you think!

I thought I would update this and list a few interesting articles that talk about progress on IPDs:

Now don’t get me wrong. These aren’t the most polished products, or even something that can necessarily be called “good”, but this is an interesting evolution to watch as it all evolves right before our eyes!

  • Could be, and it sounds awesome. With the consolidation around Micro USB as a standard data interface, it seems like the industry is prepared for additional standardization. What kind of bandwidth would be needed for an interface like that? Is USB enough? Related, I’ve been using AirDisplay on our iPad over WiFi – not quite fast enough yet.

  • There’s absolutely no reason why USB 3.0 micro couldn’t handle this bandwidth, so that would be possible. However, I’m not sure I would recommend it all to go over a USB connection because while it is a standard, it’s a standard for data and HIDs, not for display and audio. While you would be correct that there are implementations of video and audio over USB, take a look at what those implementations take to process it. It takes additional hardware which means additional software, both of which means additional costs. And all of that means more expensive, more error-prone, and buggier devices for consumers, which is no good.

    Our other two options are: 1) Create a new standard port that just combines multiple existing standards into a single port for this specific purpose or 2) Create a standard that requires existing standard ports/orientation/placement to support docking compatibility (the first would have to have a standard placement/orientation in the device to support dockability as well). Let’s talk about these two options, the second one first.

    2) Let’s say we standardized on three different ports for our dock: Mini DisplayPort, micro USB, and 3.5mm audio jack. There would be pros and cons to this versus the other option. A pro would be that all of these ports are also consumer-usable ports. Additionally, the three ports alone could provide a layer of physical stability for docking the phone (especially the 3.5mm jack). However, three different ports interconnecting would require some difficulties to the user lining up just perfectly to dock it, which means more wear/tear which could cause the male portions of these interconnects to come loose and cause high-cost (relatively-speaking) repairs to be required. Additionally, the hardware costs of the three ports would likely be higher for manufacturers (component costs, probably not, but installation, warranty repairs, etc.) than a single port.

    1) Let’s say we have a future-generation of DisplayPort that handles display, audio, and data, and use that, or we just create a brand-spaking new IPD port – whichever. Regardless, let’s call it our IPD port. So pros here would be costs, repairs, etc. Cons would be that this port would be mostly useless to consumers with existing cords/accessories. So if a phone wanted to allows you to plug headphones in, it would have to have 2 different ports for audio-out: a 3.5mm jack AND an IPD port. Now while that is a con, this can also be a pro (arguably). This arguable pro is that we could now have IPD-to-?? adapters that might create some interesting scenarios. IPD-to-HDMI (with audio), IPD-to-DVI, IPD-to-DisplayPort (with audio), IPD-to-VGA, IPD-to-optical(!?), IPD-to-you-name-it. This is essentially a universal port that all phones would have and all of these adapter cables should work with. And perhaps some of these could work nicely when paired with standard ports. For example, I love having my phone docked on my nightstand at night but this takes up my USB port which means I can’t have it docked and plugged into my laptop at the same time (without crawling under my bed to unplug it from the AC-to-USB adapter so I can plug it into my laptop). It sure would be nice to be able to have a second USB port to plug it into my laptop at the same time. If my dock was using an IPD port instead, then perhaps a USB port would be accessible now to me. Anyways, I suspect this pro isn’t significant enough to drive adoption for this reason but the cost scenario may be.

    Ultimately, I don’t know which is the better option. Do we want one more (probably largish) port on our phones? Or do we want to risk the wear and tear on our Tablet Shells and Keyboard Docks? I think phone manufacturers will argue one thing while Tablet Shell and Keyboard Dock manufacturers will argue another. From an ideal-convenience-to-the-user standpoint, the IPD port would be preferable. From an ideal-cost-standpoint, I’m not sure. From an ideal-aesthetics-standpoint, the multiple port option wins. So I’m not sure what’s best here. Ultimately, though, I suspect the IPD standard would need additional stability-based standards to allow a shell/dock to “latch” onto the phone, and this could weaken the arguments about wear and tear, which would lean the argument towards using multiple standard ports. However, the scalability of DisplayPort also leans us towards already having a standard port that *can* support everything we potentially need (from multiple video to multiple audio to USB connectivity), so in the end, both could win.

    Check out these links why I suggest DisplayPort over HDMI. Specifically note the expandability of DisplayPort (our micro USB port portion of option 2 will ultimately go away with our DisplayPort providing that functionality for our docking purposes, further reducing costs), the cheaper licensing of DisplayPort, and how the hardware processing component is on the display side of things rather than the rendering side of things (meaning we could have multi-monitor options cheaper/easier since our phones, closer to a consumable than our monitors, would have to handle less of the processing for that).

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  • Zic

    Hi Shane,

    I just read your update about “The future of Smartphones and Tablets” and found it very interesting. If I translate your update for the French community, to start a debate about this subject of convergence, can you give me your ahtorization? Of course, a link to the original article and the copyright owner of the original version will be included.

    Your post is the most complete and the more reflecting of what I thought these last months. It will be an honor to start with it as a base to engage a debate in French (my traslation will be cross-posted on French “Planets” via my blog’s RSS/Atom, like, for example).

  • @Zic:
    You certainly are able to translate this article assuming all credit goes to me and links prominently back here and do not treat it as your own content. My apologies for the incredibly delayed response.

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