About 20 years ago, when I was lugging around a 9-pound laptop on trips all over the world, I kept thinking that there had to be a better way to compute while traveling. At the time though, we only had the technology to deliver heavy and clunky portables. If you wanted to work while on the road, this is all anyone had available to them back then.
On one of my trips to London in 1992, I started envisioning what I would want in a portable computer if we had the necessary technology to make a more portable computing vision come true. While I could have envisioned a lighter, thinner and sleeker laptop, my actual vision was much more far reaching in concept.
As I was sitting on that flight, I began wondering, “What if the back of the seat in front me of had a screen on it and the tray table could flip over and have a keyboard built into it for input?” I then envisioned what I called a CPU brick, which I could plug into the keyboard. It would power this PC shell, and more importantly, it would have all of my personal user interfaces, content, email clients and everything else I needed. In other words, the brick would be my personal computer and I would just plug it into some kind of dock connected to screens on planes, trains, and in hotel rooms and airport lounges.
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While the idea of having screens and keyboard docks available everywhere no longer makes sense, there is a similar concept emerging that in a way turns your smartphone into that CPU brick and makes various screens available for viewing your content. Early attempts at this came from Motorola with its Atrix smartphone and Lapdock accessory. Along the same lines is the Asus Padfone.
The basic idea here is that the smartphone itself is your PC and then docks into the back of either a portable screen or some type of laptop shell. At the time these products were released, smartphones really were not powerful enough to deliver a serious PC experience. But since then, various technologies have emerged that could make this vision a reality relatively soon.
The first key technology is based on the new mobile quad-core CPUs by Qualcomm, Nvidia and Intel that are found in almost all new smartphones. Although they are low-voltage processors, most of them clock in at between 1.5 GHz and 2.1 GHz , which gives them PC class computing power. Sure they aren’t as powerful as CPUs with much higher processing speeds, but they all have graphics cores built into them and they all do a pretty good job of delivering personal computing functionality on a smartphone.
The other technology is called Mobile High-Definition Link, or MHL, which is a mobile audio/video interface standard for connecting portable electronics devices to high-definition displays. This is an important spec that is supported by dozens of industry companies and is already deployed in over 100 million smartphones. The major company producing specific MHL chips that go into televisions, home theater systems and all types of mobile devices is Silicon Image.
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Last fall, Korea Telecom announced its Spider Laptop shell that can connect to an Android smartphone. It uses an MHL 2.0 cable for the connections currently. At the moment it uses its own Android phone for the connection, but the company has plans to make the Spider Laptop shell work with other Android phones in the future.
Samsung is also working on something like this, using the Spider Laptop shell reference design and working on tying it to the Samsung Galaxy III smartphone. Both versions use an MHL cable from the smartphone to the Spider Laptop shell to power it, but they could just as easily create some kind of MHL dock or even build a dock into the Spider Laptop shell over time.
While standalone laptops powered by their own CPUs and GPUs won’t go away, a new computing paradigm could emerge in which the smartphone actually becomes the center of our personal computing universe.
Keep in mind that the smartphone has all of your personal data, personal user interface and personal apps, and all you would need to have is a laptop shell or a desktop monitor connected to an MHL docking stand, which then mirrors all that’s on your smartphone.
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Instead of buying a pricey laptop, various vendors could create laptops like the Spider that just have some basic screen technology, power supply and connector that can receive what the smartphone sends to it. Perhaps some internal storage or just an SD Card slot could be added in order to boost what can be stored on the laptop shell itself for future use.
Depending on the costs of the screens, these laptop shells could be priced as low as $129, although they’ll most likely cost closer to $179-$199 in the near future. Even more interesting is the fact that since the shell does not have to sport a lot of technology inside, it could be relatively thin and light as well — although in some models, it would be nice to have an extra battery in the shell to extends usage hours.
In some ways, my 1992 vision of a PC brick is coming true, although not quite as I had envisioned it. Rather, the brick itself will perhaps be a smartphone, and laptop shells, TVs and other screens will be the go-betweens for displaying our digital content and applications. We’ll have the option of using keyboards, mice, voice and gestures to interact with these screens, too. If this happens, then the smartphone really could become our main PC, in many ways changing the way we think about PCs in the near future.
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Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every Monday on TIME Tech.