With Webtop Dead, It’s Time to Rethink Modular Computing

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When Motorola announced Webtop in January 2011, I fell for the hype, hard.

Webtop was an accessory that turned Motorola’s Atrix 4G phone into a simple laptop, with a keyboard, trackpad and a full version of Mozilla’s Firefox browser powered by the phone itself. Like many other pundits, I though that Motorola had provided a glimpse at the future of personal computing, where the smartphone is the center of everything, and all other devices are just dumb terminals.

(MORE: Two Minute Video: Motorola Atrix Smartphone-Powered Laptop)

Nearly two years later, after producing follow-up versions of Webtop for other phones, Motorola confirmed to CNet that it’s abandoning the concept. Most people just weren’t interested in the product, at least not enough for Google’s new subsidiary to throw more resources at it.

As my colleague Harry McCracken pointed out, there are several reasons that Webtop failed. The accessory was pricey, and on AT&T it required a more expensive data plan to use over mobile broadband. Later models were cheaper, but their designs were less elegant. The software on Webtop was sluggish, and the version of Firefox it ran was outdated from the start.

But after some soul-searching, now I wonder if there’s a more fundamental issue. Maybe the modular computer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

After all, what are the advantages of a device in which the phone docks into a larger computer? It’s not significantly less spacious than two separate devices, because the phone is most likely going in your pocket when it’s not docked. It could provide a common set of applications, but that assumes you’d want to have the same apps on your phone as on your laptop or tablet, which isn’t a given. It could offer a common pool of storage, but that’s of decreasing use as we store more of our documents and media online where they’re accessible from any device.

The only potential advantage that remains is cost savings, if we assume that a dumb clamshell is cheaper than a proper laptop. Even so, the idea that you might save a few bucks isn’t reason enough to declare phone-laptop hybrids as the future of computing.

Meanwhile, there are a few distinct disadvantages for a Webtop-like device. A palm-sized phone places inherent limits on processing power and storage capacity (and battery life, if these kinds of devices were to ever go wireless). When docked, the device renders your phone unavailable without weird fallbacks, like the pen-phone accessory in Asus’ Padfone. If your phone goes missing, or is simply out of reach, all the devices powered by it become paperweights.

That’s not to say all modular computing is completely misguided. I remain excited for Windows 8 and its laptop-tablet hybrids (or desktop-tablet hybrids) because combining those devices brings real advantages. A combined laptop and tablet takes up less space in a bag than two separate devices and allows users to quickly switch between two modes of computing. That sounds useful to me, no matter what Tim Cook says.

So while I’m a little bummed that Motorola’s Webtop didn’t survive long enough to get Chrome OS instead of Firefox, I’m holding out hope for an Android tablet that doubles as a Chromebook. Give me a tablet that can provide a full desktop web browser, and I’ll be more satisfied than I’d be with a smartphone that did the same.

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