The iPhone May Foreshadow The Future of Personal Computing

on December 19, 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.