Today at Computex Asus unveiled the expected Padfone modular mobile package that uses an Android smartphone to power a 10-inch tablet. The announcement didn't have surprises over the leaked information, and showcased a clever method of using a tablet dock to turn a smartphone into a more useful device with a larger screen. This modular approach can be a good one if its done correctly, but it can be doomed for failure if it is not done properly. It would be a good idea for Asus to think through the pros and cons of the modular approach.
Open opportunities. The modular system opens up a number of useful scenarios for consumers who buy into the method. The tablet dock Asus is demonstrated takes advantage of the hot segment of the moment, yet is also open to other docking solutions. Motorola demonstrated this with the Atrix 4G and the innovative laptop dock, and Asus could produce other docks like this to use with the Padfone. The consumer could buy into as much or as little of the entire ecosystem as needed, and have multiple devices run by the one phone.
One data plan. The beauty of the Padfone modular system is the phone is the connection. The tablet dock is just a bigger display, so the user only needs one SIM card and one data plan with a carrier to make them both work. This makes it cost effective for the owner, while providing mobile connectivity for the tablet anywhere. It's a win-win for the consumer.
Seamless docking. As demonstrated by Asus, the Padfone owner can be working away normally with the phone and have the tablet seamlessly take over when the phone is docked. This fits the way people work and will provide a positive experience for the user. Pop the phone in the tablet and have a better experience in an instant.
Flexibility. Mobile professionals love choice, and this modular approach provides it. The user can leave the tablet dock at home when the phone is enough, or take them both.
Battery benefits. As I discovered with the Atrix 4G and the laptop dock, the benefits to battery life of the phone are enormous. The Asus tablet dock has its own large battery that takes over when the phone is docked, and it should be possible to get near all-day battery life using the combo. More importantly, Asus confirmed that like the laptop dock on the Atrix, the tablet dock charges the Padfone battery while docked. That means that when you pop the phone out of the tablet, it will usually have a fully charged battery. This is big in real usage.
Easier updates. Getting Android updates on devices is not an easy thing, given all the parties involved in the process. The modular approach makes this process much easier, simply because only the phone needs updates. When the phone gets updated all the docks get updated too.
Pricing. While the Padfone and tablet dock are two different devices, consumer reaction to the Atrix shows that's not how they are perceived by buyers when it comes to pricing. Sales of the Atrix and laptop dock were not big, and commentary indicates that prospective buyers felt the combo was too expensive. Asus will find that consumers consider the tablet dock to be a less than ideal gadget as it is just a shell for the phone. Reaction to the Atrix leads me to believe that consumers will expect the Padfone/ tablet dock combo to be far cheaper than regular Android tablets. The carrier-subsidized price of $500 for the Atrix 4G phone and the laptop dock was much too high to generate good sales, and this will be the same for the any modular system. The docks must be dirt cheap to get buyers' attention, since they've already bought the phone.
Carrier interference. In the U. S. the carriers exert too much pressure over their customers and they will have a knee-jerk reaction to this modular approach where one SIM powers multiple devices. AT&T did this with the Atrix 4G/laptop dock combo by requiring a paid tethering plan to use the phone in the dock. This makes no sense on any level, but that's the way it is and likely to be applied to any modular system. This type of interference is what drives customers to Wi-Fi only tablets, as it removes the carrier from the equation. The Padfone is going to be up against this in the U. S.
Data caps. Limited data consumption is here to stay in the U. S., and using the phone's connection to get a bigger device online will result in greater data usage. While carriers have so far been willing to let smartphones have unlimited data connections, that will not be the case for those that plug into larger screen devices. Users of modular systems might discover just how quickly those data caps can be exceeded.
I am a big fan of the modular approach to using the smartphone as the brains of multiple devices. I can see a system where mobile professionals have multiple docks to fit their needs of a particular time. A powerful smartphone is a great daily companion, and the ability to choose either a tablet or laptop dock for a given trip would be wonderful. Let's hope Asus does this right. Unfortunately, the Padfone shown at Computex today is just a mockup and the shipping product is not expected until the end of the year. A lot can happen between now and then.
Here is a video from Asus showing the Padfone modular system, and discussing the design process.