I say “in theory” because it didn’t work that well in practice. The phone would boot into a customized version of Linux called Webtop OS. It ran the desktop version of Firefox, a emulator for Android that would allow you to access the contents of your phone, and not a lot else. Worse still, it was slow, laggy, and buggy. But the promise of it was enticing — one device, that you would always have with you, could serve as your only computer. You could have all your files, software, and preferences with you at all times wherever you go.
Currently, many people carry three devices with them — laptop, tablet, and phone. In this vision you would only need to carry one. At work or at home, you could just plug your phone into your monitor and keyboard, your TV, or your laptop and not have to worry about carrying anything else.
2011 wasn’t the right time for such a device, and Motorola wasn’t the right company to make it. However, the time may be right for another company — and I have one in mind — to try again. This is what I want, and what I would buy if it were available.
In order to be successful, there are a several vital elements that this device would need to have.
1) Decent Performance
People do not want to put up with a slow, jerky, or laggy experience. Most of the major technology companies, including Apple, Microsoft, and Google have all realized this. A phone is necessarily going to have a less powerful processor than a laptop, but software is actually getting less processor-intensive as more elements are moved online to the “cloud”. (For an powerful example of this, see my review of iWork for iCloud.) This means that that more processing is done remotely, and less is done on your device. Phones are the best cloud devices, because they almost always have a connection to the internet.
Additionally, companies are proving that they can make devices that are less powerful but that also deliver a good experience, such as tablets and ultrabooks. The popularity of ultrabooks and tablets proves that people are willing to sacrifice processor power for advantages like smaller devices and battery life, so long as they are not giving up performance.
2) Software that People Use
In order for one device to replace the two or three that people are currently using it must run the software that people need on those devices. This was a big problem with the Atrix — people have needs for their devices beyond the web browser. Getting software for your platform is not easy these days — there is a chicken and egg scenario around users and developers. Users want to use devices that have the apps they want, and app makers want to write for the platforms with the most users. This makes it hard for those who aren’t established players to break in.
3) A Tailored but Consistent User Interface
This one is a challenge, because you want a UI that is specific to the way the device is being used but is also consistent across each use case. Part of the reason the iPad succeeded where prior Windows tablets had failed is because the iPad had a user interface specifically designed for touch. The people at Apple realized that taking an interface designed for use with a mouse and keyboard (like Windows or OS X) was not going to work on a small tablet designed to be used in your lap, so they created an interface that worked well with a finger (which they of course first used on the iPhone).
With Windows 8, Microsoft decided that they needed to learn from the iPad and create a touch friendly interface for people using Windows on tablets. But what they discovered is that when you take two completely different UIs and try to combine them, people get confused. Windows 8 has a touch interface that is fairly good, and a desktop mode that is also good. The problem is that there is no consistency between those interfaces — each works in a completely different way. The result is a jarring experience as you move back and forth between the desktop mode and the new live tiles. It has gotten to the point where Microsoft has taken steps to make things more familiar by reintroducing the start button and bypassing the tiles UI altogether when starting the machine.
I believe Microsoft would have been better served if they had found a way to have one user interface that could optimize itself to either touch or mouse use — this way there is one interface to learn but it will still be suited to the way you’re using your computer.
My dream device would need to work in the same way. Whether you’re using the device as a desktop, laptop, phone, or even tablet, you want a UI that is specifically tailored to the way you’re using it, but also familiar no matter how you’re using it.4) Useful accessories
This is one place where I think that Motorola had things mostly right with the Atrix. A way to easily dock the phone to a desktop setup or laptop is crucial to this concept. This way you can get the computing experience you want where and when you want it. (The part where Motorola was way off was the price. You cannot charge more for a laptop dock than you charge for a laptop computer!)
With all that said, who could make such a device?Microsoft. Like it or hate it, Microsoft is putting its Live Tiles/Modern/Metro/Whatever interface across all its devices, from phones to tablets to PCs. They’re quickly making it better, with new useful features in Windows 8.1, and we know that Microsoft is working on making most of its major software (notably Office) available from this interface. Going forward, no matter what Microsoft device you pick up, the way you use and interact with it should be familiar.
Additionally, Microsoft has proven that it makes good hardware. The Surface, for all its flaws and failures, was solidly constructed and well-built. Making quality desktop and laptop docks, and possibly even the phone itself, should be in Microsoft’s wheelhouse.
However, there are problems. First, there isn’t yet much quality software available from the app stores for Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8. Second, there are separate app stores for Windows and Windows Phone — despite looking the same the software does not overlap (unlike with the iPad and iPhone, as the iPad can run iPhone software). Third, the Live Tiles interface is not great when being used with a mouse and a keyboard. Fourth, there are thousands of programs available for Windows, but most of them are only available for the legacy desktop interface.
I’m not saying it will be easy, but there should be ways to address each of these issues.
For the first, as more people begin using Windows 8 (as ultimately, they will), developers will have more reason to make apps for it.
Second, Microsoft should create a unified app store that works on both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. Phone apps should be able to work on larger screens in a similar manner to how iPhone apps work on the iPad. Of course, apps designed for a particular size screen will be better than a shrunken down or blown up version of an app, but anything that will help people have the tool they need whenever they need it will be valuable.
Third, the Live Tiles interface can be modified to be more compact and useful with a mouse when one is plugged in and detected. I am not a designer, but I believe that someone could make this work, and possibly even have the Live Tiles provide more information when used with a mouse.
Fourth, Microsoft might be tempted to try and make legacy software available, but I believe this would be a mistake. They should instead focus on increasing the quality and quantity of new software. Software designed for old machines or desktop interfaces is never going to give as good of an experience to someone using a device with touch, no matter how much it is modified. Plus Microsoft has never been good at taking apps designed for the desktop and making them easy to touch — that may be why it went and started from scratch to create an entirely new UI for touchscreens.
Microsoft Will Probably Never Make This Kind of Product
Steve Jobs once famously said, “If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will.” However, most businesses do not ascribe to that philosophy, and I’ve seen no evidence that Microsoft has any interest in cannibalizing its main businesses.
Microsoft’s two biggest money makers are Windows and Office. This device would certainly cannibalize the former — if people are using their phones as their computers they will not be buying Windows PCs , which means Microsoft will sell fewer copies of Windows. Furthermore, if Microsoft makes available a free version of Office — like they do on Windows Phone and Windows RT — it could cannibalize Office sales as well.
For this reason alone, Microsoft will probably never make my dream device. However, there are several good reasons why they might want to.
First, Windows Phone is a distant third when it comes to smartphone operating systems, well behind iOS and Android in market share. A device like this could really change that.
Secondly, Microsoft could make money on accessories like desktop docks and laptop docks. Microsoft is already one of the biggest manufacturers of mice and keyboards, and these items would complement those.
Finally, as Steve Jobs said, if they don’t do something like this someone else just might.
So there you have it — at obsessive length — my dream device. A computer that you always have in your pocket, and that provides a desktop, laptop, or phone/tablet experience depending on the situation. Is this something that you would buy? What does your dream device look like? Let me know! Leave a comment or send me a message!