Are Docking Smartphones Worth the Fuss?

They sport dual-core processors, capture HD video, and surf the web at blazing 4G speeds. So why not leverage all that capability—and the cost of that monthly data plan—by choosing a smartphone that doubles as a laptop or tablet?

Motorola was first to prove this concept with the Atrix 4G, which transforms into a notebook when you plug the Android phone into an optional dock, complete with the full Firefox browser. The company now offers a second phone with this capability, the Droid Bionic for Verizon Wireless.

ASUS, whose Eee Pad Transformer tablet connects to a keyboard dock, will be pushing the modular computing envelope again early next year with its Padfone, an Android handset that plugs into a tablet.

So are these products practical or ahead of their time?

Convergence Evolved

ASUS product manager Bellen Tan believes that shoppers want this kind of convergence. “Consumers nowadays are concerned about the screen size limitation of mobile phones due to all the functionality available,” she said. Tan argues that the Padfone, and devices like it, will allow users to make the most of today’s smartphones expanded capabilities.

Targeting entry-level tablet users and consumers dissatisfied with their current smartphone or tablet, ASUS’ Padfone is an Android-powered hybrid device that combines a smartphone with a tablet. The phone will dock within the slate, giving users a larger screen. The tablet also doubles as a standalone charger for the phone. Internet access will be shared between the two devices, as will storage, thus eliminating the need for syncing.

Forcing the Carriers’ Hand on Data

While carriers have toyed with the idea of allowing subscribers to pay for megabytes used across multiple devices, a comprehensive plan has yet to emerge. For now, customers are forced to pay separate data fees for phones and tablets with integrated mobile broadband. A USB data modem involves its own monthly subscription. Hence, one benefit of a smartphone that plugs into other gadgets is that it can save you money.

Let’s say you purchase an AT&T smartphone with a $25 2GB data plan and a separate USB modem for your laptop with its own $50 plan for 5GB. You would be looking at $1,800 in fees over two years. If you purchased the Atrix 4G and the $299 Lapdock, plus the required $45 DataPro plan, you would spend $1,379 over the same two-year period. That’s a savings of $421.

While those numbers look compelling, you need to make sure your dock of choice is good enough to serve as your primary laptop or tablet.

More Security, More Juice

Aside from allowing you to use your phone’s data plan to power multiple devices, docking has the benefit of increased security. Since all the data is stored on the handset, a laptop or tablet dock could be lost or stolen without fear of a security breach. Motorola is highlighting other business features on the dockable Bionic, including the bundled Citrix GoToMeeting and the ZumoCast app, which gives users remote access to files on their primary device.

Yet another plus for dockable smartphones is that the docks can supply additional battery life when you can’t get near an outlet. ASUS Chairman Jonney Shih told us that Padfone users will be able to charge the device up to five times using the tablet dock. The Motorola lapdocks supply approximately 8 hours of battery on their own.

Dockable Phone Drawbacks

While it’s convenient to rely on one gadget to do everything, it can also be a hassle. One of the biggest potential drawbacks with modular computing devices is breakage. If your smartphone goes on the fritz, your notebook and tablet dock will instantly become paperweights.

The docks themselves aren’t cheap, either. You could get a very good netbook for the price of Motorola’s Lapdock ($299), with a lot more functionality than what the bundled webtop software provides. But phone makers are clearly trying to follow the lead of PC vendors because accessories have much higher margins.

“Typically the moment you start talking about mobile computing, you also talk about opportunities for shipping accessories,” said David Daoud, research director at IDC. “We found for every dollar spent on a laptop, there is $1.05 spent buying other products around the PC.”

While mobile phone manufacturers often attempt to make accessories that can be used with different devices, the Atrix 4G’s Lapdock is not compatible with the Bioinc. So if you upgraded to Verizon’s phone, you’d have to fork over another $299 for the dock. “In the future, we are looking at ways to have the accessories be compatible across multiple devices from our product portfolio, offering greater flexibility to consumers,” said Seang Chau, Motorola’s chief software engineer.

Too Much Complexity?

Vendors looking to create a successful phone + dock device must ensure that their solution is as easy to use as two dedicated devices. But Motorola’s webtop software is proprietary and looks and works differently than what you’ll find on the phone. “When you add the layer of software on top of it” said Daoud, “the software may not be so easy if it’s not an out-of-the-box experience.”

Despite the fact that both the Atrix 4G and Bionic run Android, Motorola’s webtop software uses Mozilla Firefox as the browser instead of Chrome, chosen because of its popularity. Chau argued that Firefox made sense because of the “thousands of add-ons and themes, a broad user base, and user-friendly features.” Users can also run their phone’s software on top of webtop—handy for dialing phone numbers from web search results—but it’s not always clear how the two interfaces work together.

We don’t yet know how ASUS’ Padfone might work differently in phone and tablet modes, but we presume the transition might be easier than with Motorola’s webtop-powered accessories. That’s because Google’s upcoming Ice Cream Sandwich software is supposed to unify the interfaces for phones and tablets.

To Dock or Not To Dock

ASUS Padfone Back

Although it’s still in its infancy, the future of modular computing seems bright. As the processors inside phones continue to become more powerful, consumers will expect devices that can change functionality on the fly. According to Richard Shim, senior analyst for the PC group at DisplaySearch, there are a number of trends indicating that people would like a universal device that can handle most, if not all, of their computing needs. But the cost and complexity of dockable phones will continue to be roadblocks in the short term. “The stars have yet to align and produce a product that can be all things to everyone,” Shim said.


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