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Gadget vendors must realize smartphones can do so much via tethering, Bluetooth

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2011; 4:45 PM

Our smartphones are getting ahead of us.

Not in the sense that their features exceed our understanding (though that's often the case), but in the way the rest of our devices haven't caught up to their capabilities.

Over the past few years, the smartphone has become a polymath of gadgets. It downloads and uploads on demand; it plays and records pictures, music and video; it knows where in the world you are; it even senses which way you're holding it.

But to most other electronic items, a smartphone only lets you make phone calls.

The industry is finally starting to realize this problem, but one of the first, flawed attempts to fix it only illustrates how much work remains.

That would be Motorola's Atrix Android smartphone and its associated LapDock. By itself, the LapDock - $399.99 separately, or $300 extra before a $100 mail-in rebate when bought with the $199.99 Atrix - can't do anything.

Instead, the dock borrows the phone's processor, storage, software and AT&T HSPA+ mobile broadband. In return, it lends the phone an 11.6-inch screen, a keyboard and trackpad and a few add-on programs, including the Firefox browser.

The results, as noted on my blog earlier, are a mess. Beyond selling for more than many netbooks, the LapDock is slow and suffers from some maddening design defects, including one of the worst battery-gauge interfaces ever inflicted on users.

But it does demonstrate that netbooks don't need their own mobile broadband. Neither do tablet computers. When your smartphone can share its connection, why pay for that extra hardware and service?

(CDMA phones from Verizon and Sprint don't allow simultaneous voice and data use, but those carriers' 4G phones can or will soon.)

Yet tablets and laptops alike come bundled with broadband - and in some cases, such as with Samsung's Galaxy Tab and Motorola's just-introduced Xoom tablet, they arrive unaccompanied by cheaper, WiFi-only models.

The Atrix represents one way out of that mess. But it would be simpler to make wireless or wired "tethering" a standard feature on phones - as is the case on the Verizon iPhone, even if it comes at an extra monthly price.

Tinkering types have another option. If you "jailbreak" an iPhone or install extra software on an Android phone, you can get this capability for free.

Auto manufacturers have also been slow to realize they need to work with phones. Although almost all new cars include a simple line-in jack to connect a smartphone (say, for tuning into Web radio on the road), most only employ Bluetooth wireless for speakerphone use, not to connect the phone to the car stereo.

And if you want to use your phone's GPS in place of the car's, you'll have to get a windshield or dashboard mount for it. Having the phone's own navigation software displayed on the car's larger LCD remains a press-release promise.

Things aren't much better in the living room. Projecting photos, music or video from a phone to a television or the speakers around it has traditionally needed a proprietary dock.

Many of the pieces are already in the market, waiting for somebody to click them together in an elegant manner. Some newer stereo receivers support hi-fi Bluetooth audio; some new smartphones include micro-HDMI cables that let you plug them into a TV; others include DLNA software to share media with other devices at home, including "connected TV" with their own Internet capability.

But wireless video sharing still seems stuck on pause.

Digital cameras might need more help from phones than any other device.

They can still beat phones for pure picture quality, but they lose the competition right after taking the picture. Phones can tag pictures with GPS coordinates automatically and then e-mail and upload then within seconds.

Trying to cram GPS and Web applications into cameras is not a long-term answer. Instead, the camera should learn to talk to the phone, asking it for its location and tossing photos over to the phone for it to share at will.

But aside from one interesting, Android-linked Samsung model debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in January - where I took more pictures with a smartphone than my own camera - camera manufacturers don't seem to have figured this out.

Phone vendors share some blame. Many phones continue to ship without Bluetooth support for wireless keyboards (which would further eliminate the need for something such as the Atrix's dock) and file transfer. For example, the iPhone still can't beam a photo via Bluetooth.

But the bigger problem lies outside the phone industry. For all these wireless possibilities to become reality, competing companies in multiple markets will have to settle on and stick to the same standards. And that's one of the hardest tricks to pull off in the electronics industry.

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