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Tablets, smartphones, and netbooks converge

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technology-bourIt is obvious that tablet computers like the iPad and its many competitors are the hottest segment in mobile computing today. These devices are great for Web surfing, social media, e-books, photos, video, and downloading applications of all types. They are great entertainment devices, but they are not the ideal tool for most business uses. They would be better suited for productive business purposes if a physical keyboard could be incorporated (one with real keys, not a virtual touch screen style). This would essentially make a tablet (or a smartphone) more like a real computer. Today’s article will look at some of the approaches being taken toward the convergence between smartphones, tablets, netbooks and notebooks.

For several years it looked like the netbook mini-computer was the best choice for a portable, practical, and inexpensive mobile computing device. The iPad arrived and changed all that. In the past year, netbook sales have declined dramatically. Tablets have muscled out netbooks and have found their niche by filling the gap between smartphones and notebook computers. But for me, the lack of a keyboard on a tablet is a major drawback, as I find it slow and frustrating to compose even short e-mail responses on a virtual keyboard.

One answer is to incorporate an external keyboard/dock. At my local Verizon store, both the iPad and the Samsung Galaxy Android tablet offer companion keyboard docks that you attach to your tablet. Also available are standalone Bluetooth keyboards that will work with any Bluetooth-enabled tablet or smartphone. An external keyboard for an existing device is one answer to the convergence idea, but the trouble of now carrying around more accessories puts a dent in the elegant portability of the tablet computer’s form factor.

Another approach to marrying keyboard to tablet is an integrated carrying case like the Kensington KeyFolio. This solution folds like a book or portfolio and houses a thin Bluetooth keyboard in one half, while holding your tablet in the other. When unfolded on a desk, your tablet is supported next to the keyboard and looks at first glance like a standard netbook computer.

For the netbook market segment to survive, I believe netbooks will need to become more like tablet computers. Convergence toward that idea is evidenced by the tablet netbook. These convertible devices combine both computer and touch screen display. Several approaches are used to allow the screen to rotate and fold so the units can be used as a conventional computer or as a touch screen tablet, with the screen facing upward, neatly stacked on top of the keyboard. The Dell Inspiron Duo 2 is the most intriguing example I have discovered. The innovative flip-hinge lid of this computer allows the LCD display to rotate 180 degrees within the attached frame, allowing the screen to face either inward or outward. I would like this design even more if it were possible to detach the touch screen from the frame for part-time use as a standalone tablet.

Most other convertible netbooks use a type of swivel U–joint configuration to accomplish the transformation. All of these devices are necessarily thicker than a traditional tablet due to the stacked keyboard. Several examples are the Lenovo IdeaPad S10-3t and the Mirus SchoolMate Convertible. The latter is a product aimed at younger students. It is marketed online through retailers like Target and Walmart. The SchoolMate, I think, offers a good glimpse at the future of converged computing. Its touch screen is designed to be used also with a writing stylus, making it even more versatile.

The convertible netbooks do offer the flexibility and productivity of using existing PC applications since most run some version of Windows 7, but you lose the slick functionality of the Android/Apple tablet operating systems, along with loss of the wealth of downloadable apps that are available for both types of tablets and their related smartphones. Today’s last twist on convergence addresses that.

This newest device is the Motorola Atrix 4G with the accessory Lapdock. The Lapdock looks like a netbook computer, but it is actually just an external keyboard/monitor for the Atrix smartphone. All the processing power for the Lapdock is provided from within the dual-core phone itself. It gives you the functionality of the Android operating system on a larger screen, a full keyboard and trackpad, as well as a proprietary interface described as a “unique webtop application.” You can also still make phone calls while the phone is docked. The curiously absent feature with the Lapdock is touch screen capability! You must interface the unit through the conventional trackpad. It cannot convert to act as a touch screen tablet.

All of the convergence approaches reviewed here have their pluses and minuses. Perhaps in the end we will learn that the best path is not convergence, that it is better to have two or three tools instead of one multi-tool. Yet, on the horizon is another still-unavailable product I will be watching for: The Lenovo IdeaPad U1 Hybrid is a Windows 7 computer with a removable touchpad that switches over to the Android tablet operating system when detached. (I wonder if it includes a phone.)•
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Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD, and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.

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