In Search of the Smartphone Laptop

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The Apple Netbook

When the idea of an Apple "netbook" came up on a quarterly conference call this week, CEO Steve Jobs said two intriguing things. First, he said, the iPhone does a lot of what a "netbook" does. And second, Jobs said Apple has "some pretty interesting ideas" in the tiny computer space.

The idea that Apple views the iPhone itself as a "netbook" and that the company is working on something in this space that Jobs finds "interesting" raises the question: Exactly what is Apple working on?

One possibility, which I've been predicting for quite a while now, is essentially a giant iPhone -- a tablet computer with iPhone-like multi-touch.

Another possibility is something akin to the Olo -- a laptop that integrates the iPhone. Interestingly, the newest Apple MacBooks have glass Trackpads that are larger than the previous ones -- in fact, about the size of the glass on an iPhone.

It would be easy to imagine a next-generation MacBook with a pop-out Trackpad that could be replaced by an iPhone. In other words, the space where the removable Trackpad would go could be an iPhone dock.

The advantage of this would be convenient synchronization, "tethering" (the use of the iPhone's 3G connection for laptop connectivity to the Internet) and other features sorely missing with the current lineup.

It's an appealing idea, but pure speculation and guesswork at this point.

The Celio Redfly

The Celio Redfly is a $399 (or half that price if you buy one before the end of the month) Foleo-like device that works with many Windows Mobile smart phones. It has an 8-inch screen, keyboard and trackpad. It connects to the Internet through the phone, which tethers via USB cable or Bluetooth.

Like the Foleo, Redfly is an "instant on" device, and with an advertised battery life of eight hours. It doesn't synchronize the data on your smart phone, but accesses and uses the files on the phone directly. In other words, it's unlike the original Foleo concept in that it's for running the apps and using the data on your phone, rather than its own apps and data, but with a bigger keyboard and screen.

You can look up phone numbers on the Redfly, and even dial the phone, but you have to pick up the phone to speak.


IMOVIO launched this week a clamshell device that looks like a tiny laptop, much smaller than the smallest subnotebook. It's called the iKIT, and it enables you to surf the Web using your phone's Internet connection via Bluetooth or any available Wi-Fi connection.

The $175 Linux-based system has a webcam built in and comes with a Web browser, e-mail application and instant messaging.

The feature set and price of the iKIT are appealing, but the keyboard and screen are probably not big enough to thrill users.

Clearly something is happening in that gaping void left by the failed Palm Foleo project. But whether the major players like Apple get in the game and provide leadership in this nascent category - or whether users will respond to new products - remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: Users want bigger screens and bigger keyboards on their tiny smart phones. Is that asking too much?

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at or his blog, The Raw Feed.

This story, "In Search of the Smartphone Laptop" was originally published by Computerworld.

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