Fast Forward

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

Sunday, February 27, 2011

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.

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