They Should Make It: Give Mobile Companions Another Whirl

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It’s been nearly two and a half years since Willy Yonkers introduced his iPholio concept. It’s a simple idea wherein a touchscreen smartphone—in this case, an iPhone—snaps into a netbook-size chassis right where you’d ordinarily find a trackpad. The phone would act as the computer’s trackpad and would run the phone’s operating system on a big 12-inch screen with a bigger keyboard. To this day, I still think it’s a good idea.

It’s not an entirely new concept. You’ll recall the Palm Foleo, a mobile companion that almost made it to market in late 2007 before being unceremoniously cancelled at the last minute. And there’s the RedFly from Celio, which is not only actually available, but is priced somewhat aggressively at between $200 and $250.

But a portable device where the phone actually snaps into the chassis and doubles as the trackpad would be truly phenomenal. The 12-inch screen would be the only somewhat expensive part and since everything’s running off the phone, you could really keep the thickness, weight, and cost at a bare minimum. Even if you wanted to do away with the keyboard, you could make a big 10-inch touchscreen device into which you could dock an iPhone.

Sound familiar?

Imagine if the iPad was little more than a $150 to $200 touchscreen dock for the iPhone. Things wouldn’t be all that different. Sure, the iPad has a somewhat beefier processor with Apple’s new A4 chip but it could be argued that blowing the iPhone 3GS’ screen up to 10 inches would produce many of the same results without having to buy an entirely new device or new apps, provided that upscaling the resolution could be handled properly.

Back to the netbook concept, though. If projects like the Foleo and RedFly didn’t exactly take off back when they first came out, it may have been from a combination of high pricing (both cost around $500 at first) and poor timing—namely that people weren’t sold on the idea of netbooks yet and mobile phones still weren’t quite powerful enough for light computing tasks. And, of course, there was the idea of having to carry an extra device around that was more than a phone but not quite a portable computer.

But with today’s 1GHz-and-growing smartphones, this concept could finally work provided the following factors fell in place.

For starters, the mobile companions would have to be priced under $200. That’s a sweet spot for most consumers when it comes to buying gadgets that aren’t deemed as necessities. Second, they’d have to be manufactured and sold by or tightly licensed and monitored by each device maker. Apple would make its own, RIM would make a BlackBerry version, HTC would make versions for its lineup of smartphones, and so on. This is mostly because there would need to be an intermediate chipset in the actual companion device to upscale the screen resolution and work out the translation from a touchscreen interface to a trackpad interface, for instance. Of course, these same manufacturers could offer both keyboard/netbook-type devices as well as touchscreen-only devices. Maybe price the touchscreen versions at $150 and the netbook versions at $200.

When using the actual phone as part of a portable computer, it wouldn’t feel quite as much like you’re carrying a bunch of different devices. Just snap the phone into the trackpad dock and go. The phone would recharge when docked since the mobile companion would have its own rechargeable battery, preferably one that used the same cable as the phone for power.

This concept wouldn’t replace the functionality of a full notebook or netbook but it would allow users to do more with their powerful smartphones. And assuming the companions could be priced at under $200, it would be a much easier purchasing decision.

So I’m politely calling for a renaissance of the mobile companion device, but this time priced to move and with the phone integrated into the design.

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