The iPhone May Foreshadow The Future of Personal Computing

by Tim Bajarin   |   December 19th, 2011

In 1989, I wrote a piece in one of my internationally syndicated columns about a mobile computing concept that was very modular in nature. Back then, portable computers were pretty bulky and heavy and having to lug them with me around the world was a pain. That led me to think about what future portable computing might look like and I took a stab at this idea of a modular approach to personal computing.

In hindsight this was ridiculously wishful thinking on my part more than anything else since the technology at that time was not there then to make those current portable computers smaller and lighter let alone modular.

At the heart this vision was the idea of having a lot of screens available in my work and home lifestyle. I envisioned these screens as being “displays” that my modular computer would connect or plug into in a lot of places and locations. The most far out thing I wrote about was the idea of the back seat of every plane having a screen and the bottom side of the tray would be a keyboard. In my model, there would be someplace for my “modular brick” as I called it to connect to this screen and keyboard and instantly become my personal computer.

The key to this idea was that the brick would have my CPU, OS, my own customized UI and all of my files and data. That meant that I would always have my own personal computer with me everywhere I would go and I would just plug it into an available screen and keyboard. Of course, that meant a large infrastructure of screens, keyboards and standardized I/O ports would need to be available everywhere. In the end, this vision was too early for its time, and even today would be hard to pull off given the state of the current technology.

Interestingly, we already have modular computing of sorts today. It comes in the form of our laptops where we have our own OS, customized UI and all of our personal files and can be plugged into a screen and keyboard as part of our computing model. Indeed, when I get to my office I connect my 13 inch MacBook Air to a 27-inch screen and use a wireless mouse and wireless keyboard. In this case, my MacBook Air is kind of brick–in this model–in that it just sits there providing the CPU power, OS, UI and access to my files.

But what if we could have that same kind of modular functionality in a “brick” that fits in your pocket? A very small device that houses a powerful CPU, OS/custom UI and data files and can be docked with a multitude of screens that are accessible around the office, school, home, shopping malls, etc. As far out as this seems, I believe that this is exactly the vision Apple has for the future of the iPhone.

If you have used an iPhone in an audio docking system you may have already thought of this idea. I was recently in a rented home in Hawaii where the entire home’s audio system was hooked up to an iPod and iPad audio/out dock. And if you have ever used Apple’s Air Play, you kind of have a glimpse of how the iPhone and the iPad can use wireless technology to share images and video.

One of the key technologies Apple has created that would help facilitate part of this concept is their 28 pin connector. While it has 28 pins, only about half of them are actually used for dock syncing, audio/video out, etc. In essence they have future proofed this connector so it could be used for a lot of other high intensity driven functions in the future.

One interesting example of this would be for an iPhone or iPad to be able to someday drive very high-resolution video monitors. Today it can only power basic VGA monitors. I recently saw technology from Corning’s Fiber division that has created a fiber cable that can be twisted, knotted, and even stepped on with no loss of high-speed transmissions. And these cables can carry data at speeds well over 50 GBPS. If this can be commercialized with the proper I/O connection points in place, it would have major ramifications for computing at all levels. But it could really enable something the like iPhone to become a modular device driving full PC functionality via various docking systems tied to all kinds of available screens, even very high resolution ones. This of course is a futuristic view but the technology is there to make this happen in the very near future.

The other roadblock to making this modular concept work today is the CPU itself. Although we are making great strides in low voltage processors that still deliver great performance, we will need very high speed mobile processors with extended graphics functions to make this modular vision work. However, if you look at NVIDIA’s current Tegra 3 chip with its 5th core, you can see that they are actually heading in this direction. And of course, we expect that Apple is working on their own mobile ARM chips that map this direction too.

I suspect that within 2-4 years we will have mobile chips that could drive this modular approach with smartphones forward.

Another interesting example of this modular connection to a screen would be in a car. All the car would have to have is a basic screen and, in Apple’s case, a dock with the 28 pin connector tied directly to it. That would mean that all you need to do is dock you iPod into this car’s iDock and that screen on the dash is now your full personal computer with added functionality tied to things like hands free navigation maps, traffic info, etc. And it would have all of your apps and files if you should ever need them via this screen.

Or perhaps the screen in the refrigerator is a dumb screen and would get all of its intelligence from the iPhone. Or for that matter, the work area on your desk at home would contain only a large screen and keyboard and you just dock your iPhone to this and you instantly have a full fledged PC.

Of course, things like the iCloud will make it much easier to keep your personal UI and data available across a lot of “smart” screens, but this modular approach could be interesting for the consumer in that the iPhone could bridge that gap between local protected content and the cloud in a much more mobile fashion. And since the smartphone is always with you, you would have the equivalent of a full PC at your disposal all of the time.

Could other smart phones become modular as well? Sure, but Apple has a jump on them with their future proofed connector and this group would need to settle on new high speed I/O s and connectors that would need to be adopted in all of their smartphones to make their modular eco system work. But Apple would appear to have quite an edge on any competitors who would want to do something similar given their advanced thinking on their own I/O’s and the fact that this connector is now on all of their devices.

As far fetched as this might sound, the concept of a smartphone as a modular computer has a lot of legs. And I know of quite a few people in various industries who are thinking this concept out now. But I believe that Apple has had this idea in their sights for some time and they too are thinking about how the iPhone could serve as the heart of a future modular computing model. And given what they have already done with the iPhone and their connector eco system, they could clearly be the first to flush it out and capitalize on this idea well before their competitors can.

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.
  • sharrestom

    I recall a patent filing from Apple adding Thunderbolt capability to a 30 pin connector. I’m guessing that an 22nm process from Intel on the Thunderbolt i/o chip would do exactly what you are asking, albeit the cable would be pricey.

    I’d argue that Apple is thinking this way, and that regrettably, Thunderbolt my ultimately be the demise of the Mac Pro as well.

  • spinoza2

    I don’t know, Tim, I think we’ve been progressing nicely in this direction since the piece you wrote in 1989. It was that year I purchased my first laptop, a six-pound Toshiba T1000SE with a nice 8″ display that gave me about 3 hours on a battery charge. Yes, it was DOS, but with the WordPerfect Suite it became my workhouse for several years. I graduated to other laptops, the Apple MessagePad (aka Newton), Pocket PCs, Sony ultralights, etc etc, and the progression has been consistent since that time.

    Certainly, my iPad (with Zagg keyboard), 13″ MBA, and iPhone 4S are worlds away from those early days, but we shouldn’t forget that this development towards increasingly powerful mobile computing has been going on for a couple decades now. This timeframe will keep us from getting too giddy with current technology, and with fantasizing that we’re standing before some convulsive revolution. Progress will continue to be incremental and methodical.

  • Wouter v. Dam

    “In hindsight this was ridiculously wishful thinking on my part more than anything else since the technology at that time was not there then to make those current portable computers smaller and lighter let alone modular.”
    If we would envision the future to the limitations of today, I fear the future would look suspiciously similar to today. Recently I attended a symposium where a speaker from NXP told us how they were now busy making products of which they could years ago scientifically prove would be impossible to make.

    “As far fetched as this might sound, the concept of a smartphone as a modular computer has a lot of legs.”
    Like Spinoza2 I actually think it is far from far fetched. With the news that windows 8 will run on ARM I hear and read people talking about the chances ARM solutions have for entering the desktop market. But in my opinion it is much more interesting to consider the rate at which consumers continue to adopt the use of mobile phones for various tasks they (used to) do on their desktop or laptop, and to what extend this activity is replacing activity on laptops and desktop PCs.