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The evolution of the smartphone: Your next PC?

About 20 years ago, I would lug my 4kg laptop on trips all over the world. It got me thinking that there must be a better way to compute while travelling. Back then, though, the technology only allowed for heavy and clunky portables; if you wanted to work on the road, they were your only option.

During a long-haul trip back in 1992, I started to envision what I would want in a portable computer, if contemporary technology was more capable. While I could have conceptualised a lighter, thinner, and sleeker laptop, my actual vision was much more far-reaching. As I sat on that flight, I began wondering: What if the back of the seat in front of me had a screen on it, and the tray table could flip over to expose a keyboard for input?

I then imagined what I called a "CPU brick," a device that I could plug into the keyboard to power this PC shell, and more importantly, provide access to all of my personal UIs, content, and email clients. 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.

While the idea of having screens and keyboard docks available everywhere no longer makes sense (if it ever did), there is an emerging concept that essentially turns your smartphone into that CPU brick and makes various screens available for viewing content from the brick. Motorola attempted something like this with its Atrix and dock accessory, and the Asus PadFone ran along the same lines. The basic idea here is that the smartphone itself is a PC, which then docks into the back of either a portable screen or some type of laptop shell.

At the time these products were released, smartphones were not powerful enough to deliver a serious PC experience, but since then, two key technologies have emerged that could make this vision a reality relatively soon.

The first key technology is the new mobile quad-core CPUs in almost all new smartphones coming from Qualcomm, Nvidia, and Intel. Although they are low voltage processors, most of them have processors that clock in at 1.5GHz and up to 1.8GHz, which give them PC-class computing power. Sure, they are not as powerful as CPUs with much higher processing speeds, but they all have graphics cores built in and do a pretty good job of delivering PC functionality on a smartphone.

The second 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 more than 100 million smartphones. Silicon Image is the major company producing specific MHL chips that go into televisions, home cinema systems, and all types of mobile devices.

At a meeting at Silicon Image recently, I learned about the newest MHL 3.0 spec and special chips in development that have some unique yet undisclosed features. Still, execs assured me that with these MHL chips in a smartphone and something like a laptop shell, all MHL 3.0-based smartphones would be powerful enough to turn an MHL 3.0-compatible laptop shell into a real laptop delivering a true PC experience.

In fact, at least two of these types of products are already in the works. Last fall, Korean Telecom announced its Spider Laptop shell that can connect to an Android smartphone. It uses an MHL 2.0 cable currently but I assume it will upgrade to MHL 3.0 when it comes out later this year. At the moment, it uses its own Android phone for the connection, but it has plans to support other Android phones over time.

Samsung is also working on something like this, using the Spider Laptop reference design and tying it to the Galaxy S III smartphone. Both versions use an MHL cable from the smartphone to the Spider Laptop for power, but they could just as easily create some kind of MHL dock or even build a dock into the Spider Laptop.

If MHL 3.0 is as powerful as has been suggested, and it really could deliver a true laptop experience, this could have major ramifications for the industry as a whole. Keep in mind that the smartphone has all of your personal data, personal UI, and personal apps; all you would need is to have this laptop shell, or a desktop monitor connected to a MHL 3.0 docking stand to mirror all that is on the smartphone. 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 centre of our personal computing universe.

Instead of building a pricey laptop, various vendors could create laptop shells like the Spider that have some basic technology and a power supply which can receive what the smartphone sends to it. Perhaps they could have some internal storage or just an SD card slot to boost what can be stored on the laptop shell itself for future use. Depending on the costs of screens, these laptop shells could be priced as low as £100, although most likely in the £150 range in the near future. Even more interestingly, since the shell does not have to sport a lot of technology inside, it could be relatively thin and light, although in some models it would be nice to have an extra battery in the shell to extend its longevity.

In some ways, my 1992 vision of a CPU brick is coming true, though not quite as I had conceived it. Rather, the brick itself will perhaps be a smartphone and laptop shells, TVs, and other screens will be the mediums for displaying digital content and apps. Keyboards, mice, voice, and gestures will allow users to interact with these screens. If this happens, then the smartphone really does become a PC and, in many ways, will most likely change the way we think about PCs in the future.