The Padfone: Innovating integration

JUNE 5 — A smartphone that’s also a tablet? Yay! 

The subject of today’s exploration is the Asus Padfone. While perhaps not the sexiest name in the universe, this innovative device encapsulates the spirit I wrote about earlier when discussing the Motorola Atrix 4G — one heart, many bodies. 

What I got excited about back then was the idea that a smartphone could power a laptop. I actually had a chance to finally test this device hands-on in a recent trip to the US. I still admire the concept, but I’ll be the first to admit there were a number of software kinks to fix before I would certify it as a smooth user experience. 

I would be lying though if I said I wasn’t thrilled at having a computer-like experience powered by a little phone. 

The Asus Padfone, launched on Monday at the Computex event in Taiwan, represents the next logical step — a phone that can also power a tablet! 

Mobile vs. very heavy libraries 

I was particularly thrilled about the news because while my beautiful Macbook Air serves all of my laptop needs (did I just out my Mac fanboy identity?), I have been considering getting a tablet very seriously. 

I remember a professor of mine who taught Russian medieval history to myself and some US Army helicopter pilots. He told us one day about how he was going to vote for Ralph Nader for one reason and one reason alone: because Nader supported the legalisation of marijuana. 

Similarly, I have been inclined towards getting a tablet for one reason and more or less one reason alone (one has to account for the simple desire to buy new toys) — ebooks. 

Like most people, I do enjoy reading physical books. They have been a warm and faithful bathroom companion for many years (if I did not defecate, I’m not sure I would ever read, really). 

I have, however, an aversion to heavy material belongings (I noticed upon my return from the US that I did not really buy a single thing back for myself) that some have attributed to a fear of commitment. 

Under these circumstances, one can probably imagine how the idea of being able to have nothing less than my entire library encompassed within a little portable device has its appeal to me. The logistics are simply overwhelming -- massive stack of incredibly heavy books vs. one little electronic gadget. 

Gadget overload 

My aversion to lugging things around extends, however, to gadgets as well. I have never seen the point in owning an iPod, an iPod Touch, an iPhone and an iPad altogether. Granted I wouldn’t own any of those unimaginatively named devices individually, but it seems even more ridiculous to own and carry them around all at once. 

I believe in a unitariness of electronic devices, where one little thing serves almost all your needs. 

My Macbook Air serves all my mobile needs that require a keyboard and is more comfortable to spend countless hours on than any mobile computer I have used — it’s the perfect, albeit slightly costly, combination of mobility and usability. My trusty Nexus One, on the other hand, is a smartphone that meets all basic needs while being convenient to have on my person at all times. 

It is only a matter of time, of course, before my phone becomes defunct. Thanks to Asus though, now instead of having to fork out tons of cash to buy both a new phone and a new tablet, I can do both at the same time. 

The Padfone is a normal looking phone that has the abnormal ability to slot itself into a tablet; said tablet has no functionality on its own, but once the phone is plugged in, springs to life as a fully featured tablet — hooray! 

Less bulk, less devices, less cost — more fun and convenience. 

Addressing android fragmentation 

What about the software? Android developers branched off from their 2.x path to create Android 3.x Honeycomb, an operating system (OS) designed specifically for tablets. Recently, they announced that Android 4.x Ice Cream Sandwich will represent a remerging of these two branches, so that there will be a single Android OS not only for phones and tablets, but for all Android based devices as well (I have heard of computers, microwaves and washing machines running Android -- bow down to your Google overlords!). 

I think this is a great development, in no small part due to the fact that Ice Cream Sandwich also seeks to address the problem of fragmentation. Overzealous manufacturers like Samsung, Motorola and HTC love to make custom skins of the Android OS (Motoblur, Touchwiz and Sense respectively -- the latter I seem to find particularly irritating), making for a different user experience across users of different Android devices. 

This mess is to me still preferable than the iOS experience of Apple mobile devices, which to me represents the most depressing trend of conforming uniformity — where it has traditionally been near impossible to tell one individual’s device from another’s from their barely customisable homescreens. 

Nonetheless, it would be nice to have customisability within a more standardised starting point. Clearly, the ability to update devices with greater simultaneity than the present mess would also be a massive improvement. Where custom skins are concerned, perhaps in a compromise that keeps to the spirit of openness, manufacturers should allow the user the option to choose between using the custom user interface, or the standard no frills Android installation. 

Driving innovation 

The Asus Padfone has no confirmed release date, but word has it that somewhere around Christmas seems to be a possibility, coinciding with the estimated release of Android Ice Cream Sandwich. 

This is a terribly long wait for the likes of myself, but I will still applaud Asus for taking this bold step. 

My parents bought me an Asus EEE PC one Christmas, and I have to admit at first I did not really see the value in this little, underspeced computer. Like millions of others around the world, however, I was soon swayed by the convenience of this eminently mobile little netbook — a computer category that Asus is credited with practically inventing. 

I don’t use it much anymore (Windows? bleh), but their bold success with the netbook was the first of many admirable and bold innovations, which saw this Taiwanese company seek to redefine the landscape of hardware. 

They also recently caught my attention with the EEE Pad Transformer, a tablet that has a separate keyboard dock — solving one of the problems I had previously associated most with tablet-based productivity. At present, it seems to be one of the best-selling Android tablets. 

I think Asus mirrored Android’s focus on the type of openness that breeds innovation — a true democracy of ideas, and the antithesis of a certain Cupertino-based company and its one size fits all approach to mobile devices. I’m a great believer in the idea of pursuing constant improvement, and not being needlessly shackled to boring conventions. The world will never move forward without some bold souls willing to try something radically diffferent.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.


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