Why the iPhone Has a Head Start on the Future of Personal Computing

Tim Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies, Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley.

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Mike Segar / Reuters

Apple's iPad tablets and iPhones are displayed inside an Apple store in New York City on Dec. 7, 2011

In 1989, I wrote a piece in one of my internationally syndicated columns about a mobile computing concept that was very modular. Back then, portable computers were pretty bulky and heavy and having to lug them around the world with me was a pain. That led me to think about what future portable computing might look like, and I took a stab at this idea of a modular approach to personal computing.

In hindsight this was ridiculously wishful thinking on my part more than anything else since the technology at that time wasn’t even advanced enough to make the then-current portable computers smaller and lighter, let alone modular.

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At the heart of this vision was the idea of having a lot of screens available in my work and home. I envisioned these screens as being displays that my modular computer would plug into wherever I was. The most far-out thing I wrote about was the idea of the back seat of every airplane having a screen and the bottom side of the tray would be a keyboard. In my model, there would be somewhere for my “modular brick” (as I called it) to connect to this screen and keyboard and instantly make them “my” computer.

The key to this idea was that the brick would have a processor, an operating system, my own customized user interface and all of my files and data. That meant that I would always have my own personal computer with me everywhere I went and I would just plug it into an available screen and keyboard. Of course, this also meant that a large infrastructure of screens, keyboards and standardized I/O ports would need to be available everywhere. In the end, this vision was absurd for its time, and even today would be hard to pull off.

Interestingly, however, we already have modular computing of sorts today. It comes in the form of our laptops, where we have our own operating system, customized interface and all of our personal files. When I get to my office, I connect my 13-inch MacBook Air to a 27-inch screen and use a wireless mouse and wireless keyboard. In this case, my MacBook Air is kind of a “brick” in that it just sits there providing the processing power, operating system, user interface and access to all my files.

But what if we could have that same kind of modular functionality in a “brick” that fits in your pocket? A very small device that houses a powerful processor, operating system, custom user interface and data files – a device that can be docked into a multitude of screens that are accessible around the office, school, home, shopping malls and other places.

As far out as this seems, I believe this is exactly the vision Apple has for the future of the iPhone.

If you’ve used an iPhone in an audio docking system you may have already thought of this idea. I was recently in a rented home in Hawaii where the entire home’s audio system was hooked up to an iPod dock. And if you’ve ever used Apple’s AirPlay, you kind of have a glimpse of how the iPhone and the iPad can use wireless technology to share images and video.

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One of the key technologies Apple has created that would help facilitate part of this is their 30-pin connector. While it has 30 pins, only about two thirds of them are actually used for synching, charging, and audio/video output. In essence, Apple has future-proofed this connector so it could be used for a lot of other functions in the future.

One interesting example of this would be for an iPhone or iPad to be able to someday drive very high-resolution video monitors. Today it can only power basic VGA monitors. I recently saw technology from Corning’s Fiber division that consists of a fiber cable that can be twisted, knotted, and even stepped on with no loss of high-speed transmission. And these cables can carry data at speeds well over 100 gigabits per second. If this can be commercialized with the proper I/O connection points in place, it would have major ramifications for computing at all levels. But it could really enable something like the iPhone to become a modular device driving full PC functionality via various docking systems tied to all kinds of available screens — even very high resolution ones. This, of course, is a futuristic view but the technology is there to make this happen in the very near future.

Another current roadblock to making this modular concept work today is the processor itself. Although we are making great strides in low voltage processors that still deliver great performance, we will need very high speed mobile processors with extended graphics functions to make this modular vision work. However, if you look at NVidia’s current Kal-El Tegra chip with it 4+1 multiprocessor core, you can see that they are actually heading in this direction. And Qualcomm’s quad-core Snapdragon chip could provide similar power to a smartphone for this purpose. And of course, we expect that Apple is working on their own mobile ARM chips that map this direction too. I suspect that within 2-3 years we will have mobile chips that could drive this modular approach forward.

Another interesting example of this modular screen connection would be in a car. All the car would have to have is a basic screen and, in Apple’s case, a dock with the 30-pin connector tied directly to it. That would mean that all you need to do is plug your iPhone into this car’s dock and the screen on the dash would become your full personal computer, with added functionality tied to things like hands-free navigation maps, traffic info and more. And you’d have access to all of your apps and files via this screen — useable while the car is parked, of course.

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Or perhaps you’d have a “dumb” screen in your refrigerator that would get all of its intelligence from the iPhone. Or maybe the work area on your desk at home would contain only a large screen and keyboard and you’d just dock your iPhone to have instant access to a full-fledged PC.

Of course, things like the iCloud will make it much easier to keep your personal user interface and data available across a lot of “smart” screens, but this modular approach could be interesting for consumers in that the iPhone could bridge the gap between local content and cloud-based content in a much more mobile fashion. And since your smartphone is always with you, you would have the equivalent of a full PC at your disposal all the time.

Could other smartphones become modular as well? Sure, and in some ways, the Asus Transformer Prime and the Motorola Atrix are a nod to this idea. But Apple has a jump on them with a future-proofed connector, and their competitors would need to settle on new high speed I/O ports and connectors to be adopted in all of their smartphones to make their own modular ecosystems work. Apple appears to have quite an edge on any competitors who would want to do something like this, given the fact that the 30-pin connector is now on all of their devices.

As far fetched as this might sound, the concept of a smartphone as a modular computer has a lot of legs. And I know of quite a few people in various industries who are thinking this concept out now. But I believe that Apple has had this idea in their sights for some time, thinking about how the iPhone could serve as the heart of a future modular computing model. And given what they have already done with the iPhone and iPad with their connector ecosystem, they could clearly be the first to flush it out and capitalize on this idea well before their competitors can.

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Tim Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies, Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley.