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Rob Fisher on the Asus Padfone

Rob Fisher, fellow Transport Blogger and a favourite blogger of mine generally, has a posting up at his personal blog about the coming-real-soon-now Asus Padfone. Instead of each of us having a phone and a computer with a screen, this gizmo will combine the two. When you want a phone, you use the phone. When you want a computer, you shove the phone into the screen.

The central point being that phones are now big enough and serious computers are now small enough, for a phone to contain a serious computer.

It seems like the future. The amount of stuff that can be done on a smartphone-sized device is about to hit some critical level. Already desktop PCs are only needed for high end games and serious number crunching. The PC has become a laptop has become a netbook has become a phone. The only problem is the ergonomics, and a single device with multiple form factors is a good solution.

Well, I don’t know about that “only needed for high end games and serious number crunching” bit, but in principle this has to be right. Maybe not now, but any year now.

Asus has form (as in good form) for spotting when something has got small enough to be seriously different. A while back, they lead the world into genuinely portable and genuinely cheap computers, with the Asus Eee PC. I got one. At first I liked it, but eventually I got fed up with its geek-friendly but human-hostile operating system and with its just-too-small keyboard, so I sold it on to a geek child, and got a proper netbook with a proper operating system that I was able to work properly (not least because it was identical to the one on my big old home computer). Even so, despite my eventual disappointment with this Asus offering, I always liked and still like what it was trying to do.

This Asus Padfone immediately started ringing the same bells in my head. It looks like this Padfone, or something very similar, could be the natural successor to that netbook of mine, and to my regular phone, and to my ridiculously antique mobile phone, and to my Filofax, and even, in the fullness of time, to my big old home computer. Microsoft look out. Google really is taking over the world.

Asus also understands that low prices cause a lot more people to become interested in whatever it is. If this thing is as cheap as I hope it is, that will hurry things along, just like the ultra-cheap Eee PC did.

I will probably be holding off this time, waiting for others to respond with their versions of the same thing, and even then it may not really suit me. However, next time I meet Rob I will definitely be cross-examining him about this latest triumph of consumer capitalism. Despite all the financial chaos, they just keep on coming, don’t they? Why can’t schools, hospitals and, above all, banks be like this, getting more effective and cheaper and just all-round nicer with every year that goes by? Well, we know why. The rules for making these latter things should be a lot like the rules for making Padfones: make a Padfone if you want to and sell it to whoever will pay you what you ask. If you go bust, that’s your problem. The rules for schools and hospitals and, above all, banks are instead sadly different.

There are several other recent postings up at Rob’s Blog, and I recommend all readers here to have a scroll down there, if they haven’t already done this recently.

26 comments to Rob Fisher on the Asus Padfone

  • Sigivald

    Yeah, I see that failing miserably.

    (Not the convergence of telecommunication and computing, mind you, but this specific product. I expect ubiquitous telecommunications to be the way of the future, and it’s well under way now.)

    It’s a phone you can plug into a larger screen so it can be a tablet. So thus your software is either ill-suited to one size, or has to seamlessly switch display sizes/densities/resolutions.

    It’s an ugly, ugly problem, and none of the “easy” fixes don’t suck.

    Plus it has UI issues for “general computing tasks” that make it no better than a Netbook for a single-piece solution. It’s not just physical form factor ergonomics that matter, though they do.

    Serious typing still wants a full-size physical keyboard, and by the time you’re toting that around, I start thinking “11 inch laptop with a full keyboard”.

    (I say this from experience, having a smartphone. And a 9″ Netbook I never use anymore. And an 11″ MacBook Air that is the perfect god-damn laptop for my needs.

    Naturally anyone that needs more laptop than that will be even less satisfied with this Asus thing.

    It’s a novelty, is my judgment. I’m not sure even Apple could pull that one off as a decent product, and my faith in Asus’ UI and UX departments is an order of magnitude less.)

  • nemesis

    These new gadgets and gizmos are made by youngsters with nimble fingers and sharp eyesight. They dont seem to realize that puchasing power lies with the somewhat older with failing faculties.

  • Sigivald: your criticisms that it is not a laptop can also be levelled at the iPad, and yet it is successful and loved.

    Handling multiple screen sizes strikes me as a solvable problem. It might not be solved very well with version 1 of this device, I’ll grant you. But don’t overestimate the problem: the web browser and Google Maps will work seamlessly with no changes to software at all — and they’re probably the two most important apps.

  • chuck

    Ah, but note that the Asus Padfone is based on the same human-hostile operating system of which you complained.

  • When I wrote my original posting, I’d not read this. Quote:

    “The Eee is far from perfect, of course. But it’s enough to make me 100 per cent certain that within a few years, my laptop will also be a tablet. Look a little further out and it’s easy to imagine an Eee-like device that’s powerful enough for my content-creation needs. So that’s my desktop-to-sofa problem nailed.”

    Desktop to anywhere, I’d say.

    Whether the Asus Padfone is It, so to speak, is one argument. Whether this is the general way things are headed, that something like this is It, is a distinct observation. I don’t know about the first. I am asserting the second.

  • chuck

    The problem with the OS on my Asus Eee PC was the final surface of things, so to speak. The computing “fundamentals” were fine, as in: I have no reason to think they weren’t. It was just that too many things I wanted to work without me having to beg my geek friends to help me out, just fucking didn’t, and in general, it was annoying to be using two different operating systems, for my netbook and for my regular big computer. Now, I have XP on my regular computer and XP on my netbook, and life makes sense again.

    In particular I had a problem with SD cards on the Asus Eee PC, which for me was a deal breaker. I now know that I should have “turned off the card”, blah blah blah, or something. Now, I know this. But, at the time, the computer DID NOT TELL ME THIS. At the time, the computer just DID NOT WORK. I know, capital letters mean you’re insane. Well, I WAS insane, with rage. I had just thrown over two hundred quid down the toilet, on a thing that failed at the one thing above all things that I really did not want it to fail at.

    The same OS, but with the final five yards done properly (as in done properly enough for ME to be able to use it easily – ME being the only person who matters, to ME) would have been fine.

  • sigivald

    As for the claim that the software for a smart phone doesn’t suit running a pad, well, fix it so it does. That’s what I want. See to it. If you can’t do this, you’re fired and someone else will. When I hear geeks telling me that something I have been shown that I really really want is impossible I suddenly, albeit fleetingly, know that I understand the world better than they do.

    I remember geeks telling me that DSLR cameras could not have little twiddly screens that said what the picture would look like, beforehand. Can’t be done, they said, only afterwards, they said, because of blah blah blah blah. Do it I said. Then I will buy one. Until you do it, I will not. They did it. I now have one. This Padfone thing is the same.

    Now that I’ve been shown the idea, I want a smart phone which can double up as a proper computer by being put inside a big screen. Until now, I have hated smart phones, because I already have one computer that I have to navigate about in. Another, stuffed with completely different rules, would be beyond endurance. Answer: make the two things the same. Like the article linked to in my earlier comment above says:

    “I’m convinced that being forced to maintain several different computing platforms, each with its own foibles and each effectively a walled garden with very limited interactivity, is a complete anachronism.”

    Exactly so. See to it. Yeah yeah yeah, it’s impossible, blah blah blah. Just do it.

    I say that I said (re those DSLRs): do it. Actually what happened was that a human being with power over his geeks said do it.

    The supreme exponent of telling geeks to just fucking do it or be fired is Steve Jobs, who will, when cancer finally does for him, be sorely missed.

  • Re the genius that is Jobs (see above) I can remember, not so very long ago, when the writing on mobile phones was illegible. (The writing on my ridiculously antique mobile phone is still illegible, unless I hold it out of the sun, squint at it from one inch away, etc.)

    Then one day, Steve Jobs said, make it so I can read it. Can’t be done, said the geeks, because of blah blah blah. Just do it said Jobs, or I will personally fry you in hell. They did it. In my opinion, the simple legibility of the iPhone was one of the biggest reasons why it caught on so big. Now, of course, all new phones are legible.

    This is why I love Apple even though the only Apple product I actually possess is an Apple keyboard connected to my PC. (All other computer keyboards I have ever used or seen are total crap by comparison, in my opinion, for ME.) Apple sets the standard, in thing after thing after thing, that from then on all the others have to rise to.

    And I am starting to love Asus in a similar, and yet also completely opposite, way. They too are now setting new standards. Not in the sense that their stuff works, the way Apple stuff works. It doesn’t. But, it does work, as a specification. Their stuff says to everyone else: this is what you now have to make work, and this is what you have to charge for it. Look at all the people blogging about this, and even pre-ordering it, poor fools. This is the next Thing, people. Just do it.

    Apple is hopeless on the price. The only reason I have an Apple keyboard, apart from it being brilliant, is that although it costs, as usual, three times what the competition costs, in this case that is three times nothing, because keyboards cost nothing.

  • J.M. Heinrichs

    1. The ASUSphone pad is silly and will not survive. It’s one of those ideas that Apple should have tried but didn’t, because of institutional memory. Once upon a time there was a “PowerBook Duo”. It actually worked as designed, but no one would believe it. Besides, the experience shifting between variations of Android should suggest that perhaps iOS might have a slight edge.
    2. If you would insist the magic promised by the ASUS, an Apple Wireless Keyboard will pair with an iPod touch, or an iPad, which is my portability alternative to my MacBook Air 11″. Or you could try This.

  • JMH

    I think you misunderstand my excitement. You seem to think I want to carry a phone and a quite big screen and a quite big keyboard around with me everywhere, every day. No. I just want to carry the phone, with maybe a keyboard for some days. It’s when I get home that I want to go on using the same computer, i.e. plug the phone into a larger screen rather than switch to another computer.

    Maybe a proper home computer can’t yet be contained in something as small as a phone, and maybe even if it can Asus will screw up their version of this idea. But surely this is a very attractive idea, is it not?

    I also like the idea that when I arrive somewhere else, like work or someone else’s home, I can plug into a screen and keyboard there, rather than drag all this kit around with me, while still using my own computer. This is how Apple music players work, is it not? You listen to them on headphones on the tube. When you get home you shove them into a dock, with proper speakers.

    It’s all the to-ing and fro-ing between OSs, for my phone and my computer(s?), and faffing about transferring info from one to the other, that I want to avoid. In short, I want just one computer, either very portable (i.e. a phone – in size) or very powerful (i.e. with a proper screen and keyboard), depending on where I am.

  • Pete

    Everyone I know, including some who run their own businesses, can manage their lives quite well with a simple mobile phone and a cheap and reliable desktop computer at home and work.

    Some people, usually younger ones, seem to want the latest gadgets, but in my experience they only need them for two main reasons.

    1. So they can show others all the allegedely fantastic but largely useless functions.

    2. So they can familiarise themselves with the functions so they are aware when they need to ‘upgrade’.

    When paper filofaxes came out they weren’t just bought by the busy mover and shakers with just too many appointments to remember. They were also bought by many more people who wanted to appear busy and important. That’s what largely drives the market for stuff like iPads and similar devices.

  • I think Brian can get what he wants, and the Padfone will be pretty close.

    chuck, Brian is right about the OS. Android might have a Linux kernel but it is not GNU/Linux, it is Android, and it is already at the point where it is friendly for non-geeks.

    Avoiding the to-ing and fro-ing is perhaps a bigger deal for non-geeks than I imagined.

  • Pete, you’re wrong. What you mean is that *you* can manage quite well with a simple phone and a PC. Which is fine.

    And I’m the first to admit that I like gadgets for their own sake. Shiny thing make it better.

    But I also find being able to look up where I am on a map useful. I find being able to see where the nearest Pizza Express to me is useful. And being able to read the latest Samizdata post while I’m standing in line at the sandwich shop. And being able to reply to an email from my solicitor while I’m on the train. And I like being able to publish a photo of something interesting I’ve just seen to my friends and see their comments in real time. Or being at a conference and seeing commentary about the speech from other attendees. And I get entertainment from playing the odd game or finding out I am the mayor of the local pub.

    I could go on. Obviously I don’t need this stuff. But some of it is useful and some of it is fun. Those are the two main reasons.

  • Pete

    Everyone I know can do the same. And fifty years ago, everyone I knew could manage their life with paper diaries and telephone call boxes and … oh, I can’t remember, but you get the point.

    But wouldn’t it be (and wasn’t it) nice not to have to?

  • In short, what you are asking for, Brian, is a computer (nearly) as powerful as a desktop, and as small as a phone. Of course it’s doable, only a matter of time.

  • BFFB

    The big technical challenge will be heat. It’s what defines how powerful a processor you can use and how big the PCB is. The second biggest will be battery life and power management.

  • ‘Is’ and ‘has always been’, rather than ‘will be’:-)

  • Sigivald

    Rob: Absolutely – but I was referring to Mr. Micklethwait’s idea that it’s going to replace a laptop for things involving *typing* (notice “too-small keyboard”, etc.).

    The tablet form-factor is not a problem for tasks ideally suited to it, which is why the iPad is a deserved success; I just don’t think they’re a “natural successor” to the notebook of any sort.

    They’re a Different Thing, and it may be (though I doubt it, since it reeks of the novelty-for-its-own-sake) a succesful product on those grounds, in that market.

    But as a notebook/netbook replacement? Naw.

    Brian: “Fix it so it doesn’t” is fundamentally tricky. But remember, I’m speaking of the actual ASUS product being actually produced by ASUS, not some notional product.

    I have no faith at all that ASUS has done anything remotely resembling the right thing here (because, well, they’re not a software company, not a company with a User Experience focus).

    Some Other Company could make phone-to-tablet-and-back transitions work tolerably well – for instance, I’m sure that if they had to do it, Apple could make it work as well as is possible. Google could, if they tried, probably do quite well.

    But they haven’t done it yet (and I suspect Apple never will; the compromises and effort aren’t worth the non-payoff. Google, I’d guess, slightly more likely) – and thus the critique of the ASUS tablet running (to steal a phrase), “real, existing Android”, is going to have Issues there.

    I do not say it’s impossible; just difficult and probably not worth the effort, from the manufacturer’s point of view – as I said, “an ugly, ugly problem”, where “none of the EASY answers don’t suck”.

    I’m not sure demand for is there to support it.

  • Kevin B

    Brian, I’m happy we’ve already got the communicator, what we need now are the phaser, the transporter and, most especially for this old geezer, the medical tricorder.

  • David Koehler-Stanescu

    I agree with Mickelthwait’s comment that while ASUS may not be the end Padfone, they are forcing other companies better suited to the task of making one to look at opportunities in an area that resembles the initial device the ASUS produces.
    The idea will catch on, for a number of reasons. One of the biggest ones is that it will cut down on the number of gadgets that you have to carry around, no more IPhone/IPad/laptop, just one device with two functions. The other is that it provides a longer battery life for your phone, though the pad’s battery life will probably be shorter because of the phone dock. And of course, what has now been recognized as the most important, it sounds cool. It’s an idiotic reason, but the idea that the Cellular communication Device is now strong enough to honestly work with a touch pad enabled, ultra thin replacement for a computer, and there actually being a physical representation of this, is a powerful selling point. Compound this with the fact that almost everyone has this seemingly innate desire to have the newest toys, and the item will sell like a charm. And with software, many of your problems are going to be solved with honeycomb, windows8 and other OS’s that are specifically designed to operate on all platforms.

  • J.M. Heinrichs

    One day it may happen, but it will probably be Apple because they have the requisite basic technology, and the R&D chutzpah to make it happen. When it does, you will have a efficient smartphone to carry in your pocket, which becomes a full feature business computer when it’s plugged into its laptop frame. However, Google does have a chance if it can make its Chrome platform sufficiently functional and versatile.


  • pete


    I was very quick to buy a mobile phone and to get internet access.

    Before that I reckon I was one of the first people to use a pager and a fax machine.

    These gadgets were a real leap forward.

    I welcome gadgets like iPads and smart phones. They must play an important part in keeping the world’s wealth/decision makers in instant contact with each other 24/7.

    I’m just mystified why so many other people feel the need to buy them while they are quite expensive.

    In a few years time when an iPad costs a tenner I’ll probably buy one myself.

  • Gareth

    The padfone reminds me of the Motorola Atrix. As well as a smartphone, with an additional dock it becomes a laptop and there is another one which allows it to be used via a telly or monitor.

  • The ASUS product concept is interesting, but I do not think it has the legs to last more than a year. ASUS has made some great motherboards, so I know they have a fleet of EE geeks with skill. But they dont have the consumer awareness that Jobs has. This does not lessen the contribution they have made to the evolution of the personal communicator/computer/tricorder device we all want.

    Upon reading this thread, I walked literally 3 feet to my bookshelf and picked up a 3COM Palm Pilot III which is busy collecting dust there. Remember those? Remember how enough people thought that was a gadget worth the cash to obtain and use? I never found it worth the fuss, myself, but I am not a salesman or someone who lives and dies by his portable contact list.

    Now I hold in my hand an Android HTC EVO 4G, and frankly the thing is astounding. It is worth having, even considering my minimal requirements for contact, GPS location, and restaurant impulse shopping. I resisted for a long time, and I admit that this tool is very much worth the outlay for it.

    If we are talking needs, all I need is a firestarter, a long sharp stick, good boots, and a fur cloak, and I can shift for myself. What these devices deliver is extreme convenience in the data age.

    I have faith that brutal Darwinian evolution will continue unabated in the tricorder market, regardless, or perhaps because of, current world economic conditions. The ASUS Padfone is attempting to address two big problems with the iPhone and its ilk; display size, and simplicity of telephony communications.

    Fast forward 5 years. This is what we’ll have: for display, a bluetooth set of glasses or contact lenses (prescription for those of you who need it), or an earbud with a retinal projector that give you a heads up computer display that will seem as big as a large plasma screen. For user input, I think we will finally get over the hump of the QUERTY keyboard and go with a Rubic’s Cube sort of device which houses the computer guts and fits our fingers in such a way that it is comfortable and allows us to touch-type at high speed, intuitively. The geeks will be the ones who can carry this thing in one hand and type as fast as most of us can with two. It will have live, broadcast, HD video capabilities, of course.

    Its coming. Can’t wait.

  • Richard Thomas

    Brian, the big problem with the EEEPC was that Asus put the software out there and that was it. No further development, installations and upgrades were a PITA. Fortunately, several groups of people have put out different Linux distributions that bring things up-to-date nicely. Since I installed Ubuntu Netbook Remix, I couldn’t be happier, all of the hardware “just works”. In fact I just installed 2 Gigs of memory since Firefox was starting to get a bit bloaty. It’s the perfect couch PC for me (particularly with the SSD which many modern notebooks have forsaken)

    I’m still a bit bearish about the ipad. My experience is that people buy them, enthuse about them for a few months then quietly stop using them (much like you with your EEEPC). I think they’re great technologically and very shiny but I think the use case for most people is actually pretty weak.

  • nilo

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