From mobile to modular

IBMs MetaPad concept

IBM's MetaPad concept

Back in 2007 I had what I thought at the time was a unique brainstorm in the area of computing and communications.  Noting the quickening convergence between PCs and cell phones, I suggested that the obvious next step would be to bridge the two in a way that had not yet been done: shrink the PC down to a credit-card sized contraption about 5 mm or so thick and encapsulate it in a format that allowed it to be plugged in, PC card style, into an array of device “skins”.  In essence, a core engine that could drive your cell phone, GPS device, netbook or even desktop PC.  The skin, or shell, would contain or connect to all of the audiovisual interfaces and the main power supply… although the engine would of course have to possess its own energy storage for transport between uses.

Little did I know when I first made that whimsical post that IBM had already started down that path with the Meta Pad project.  Unfortunately their intent seemed to be more proof-of-concept than anything they intended to develop further much less market (a different story, however, with IBM’s Cell technology, designed for a different purpose).

Modu, the modular phone

Modu, the modular phone

 More recently, Information Week announced the development of a similar concept, Modu.  This device is more limited in scope in that it will certainly not power anything greater than perhaps a Mobile Internet Device (MID).  However, it definitely gets us closer to my plug-and-power-anything dream.  At the very least, the Modu engine could drive a variety of mobile devices and perhaps even find its way into uses the originators have not yet imagined.

The main hinderance to realization of my own modular fantasy is CPU power… but even that hurdle is rapidly eroding.  Intel’s Atom processor hints at even greater things to come size-vs-power-wise as Moore’s Law continues to hold fairly steady (notwithstanding the occasional breather).

So as the advances continue, the question in my mind remains: will we see the necessary convergence in technology and business activity that will manifest in truly modular computing devices?  Can we even dare to imagine that the “credit card computer” will eventually become a reality?

We haven’t even begun to really tap the power of nanotechnology in mainstream electronics, so who knows what the future may hold for mobile computing.  Maybe some years from now, perhaps even in my lifetime, the current complaints against the bulk of niche devices like Nokia’s internet tablets will fade as we quantum leap toward this new paradigm.  I’ll touch more on this in another article… stay tuned!

Thanks to Stephen Gadsby for pointing me toward the Meta Pad.


16 responses to “From mobile to modular


    heh, i think i have been toying with similar concepts for at least as long.

    i think the problem is a lack of standardizing will. That is, all corps have a built in desire to be top dog, and therefor will not share their interconnect bus in a way that can make someone usurp their control over the heart of such a setup.

    just look at how apple controls the ipod docking port. Sure, you can find it in all kinds of products, but only apple can make devices that provide content to said docks, no zune, walkman or similar in sight.

    oh, and you may be overlooking celio, and their products for windows mobile (i think they are working on solutions for android and symbian as well):

  2. I’ve been playing mind-games with similar ideas as well, I’m pretty sure this will come big one time, but I guess it still will take some time until then.

    • I’d like to think it’s inevitable, but as tso pointed out above, standards *may* be an issue.

      The idea can actually be taken a step further and I’ll address that in a followup soon.

  3. The Modu really should have been here (and I mean everywhere) already. This concept is well past its time, and something that would probably usher in a new stage of mobile (a real Mobile 2.0 if you will).

    Standards are one thing, networks are another. But there is a place for modular computing, and it should happen soon. The only real question is where to start… and I think that the idea of personal web-enabled servers running web-like applications in a sandbox (think a mobile web server plus the Palm webOS) would be the ideal place for this.

    • I suspect there’s some industrial fear over this concept.

      I’ll give you an example. Several years ago I invented a new type of mechanical tool for my employer at the time. The tool had the potential to take the place of a set. When I presented the concept to marketing, they balked. “We fear this,” was the response. “It will cannibalize existing sales. We know this sort of thing is coming… but we fear it.”

      It was a narrow-minded response. I pointed out how the device need not infringe on ANY existing sales– in fact, it opened the door to NEW markets where we had no presense at the time!

      The marketing director blinked. He didn’t get it. That scared ME!

      I’m afraid that mentality pervades conventional commercial enterprise. It dampens innovation to protect the status quo. But that’s a Dilbertesque rant for another time…


    hmm, now that i think about it, this may be the rise of laptops and similar vs the classical tower pc.

    sure, its more practical for the user (portable, smaller and so on), but its also much less modular.

    this means that if one wants to add something, one have to buy a whole new system. This unlike the desktop where one can pop of the case and insert a new component that will provide new capabilities.

    sure, there are pcmcia/expresscard/usb/firewire, but there are much more external then the ISA/PCI and similar are on the desktop, as even something as “small” as a new memory card format reader results in something sticking out of the machine.

    • I recently installed a SATA drive bay in the front of my tower workstation. I can now change its personality (I have a separate hard drive with Windows 7 RC 1 loaded on it) just by powering down, ejecting one drive and popping in another. I could as easily install a flavor of Linux on another hard drive and am thinking of doing just that.

      True, that wasn’t the bay’s intended purpose (it’s meant for hot-swap data drives) and virtual machines can accomplish the same thing, but the example speaks again to the modular concept.

      My computer shouldn’t care what house it’s in. Just that it’s being used. 😉

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  6. You don’t really need a special hardware device (like a modu) for this. You just need:

    1) JPC (an x86 emulator written in Java)
    2) a means to snapshot and suspend the JPC image, periodically and/or on demand
    3) a decent sized SD card (for snapshotting the image to)
    4) fast enough CPUs on your devices to run the JPC image at comfortable speeds

    So, when you’re at home at your desktop, and ready to head to the office … you tell the JPC to suspend to the SD card. You remove the SD card, put it in your java enabled phone, and start the image. When you get to the coffee shop, you suspend it, put the SD card into your netbook, and start it. When you’re ready to leave, suspend and put it back in your phone. When you get to work, suspend it again, and put it in your workstation.

    1 environment. Linux based (JPC will, today, run DSL (Damn Small Linux), so it might some day be able to run on systems that could do even something as big as Ubuntu) or maybe even windows or mac based.

    Every where you go.

    And, if it’s small enough (less than 5GB), you could even store it in Amazon’s cloud storage, instead of on your SD card. One Amazon data bucket for the OS, and then a few of them for your data segments. Then the JPC engine just needs to be able to say “suspend it to the cloud”, “checkpoint it to the cloud”, and “resume from the cloud”. Then you just click the “suspend” button, and the “resume” buttons on whichever device you’re on.

    (though, Amazon’s storage isn’t guaranteed to be reliable – there are other ones out there, though, that do promise more reliability)

    JPC info is at:


      was considering something similar at some point, tho using a generic x86 VM image for the desktop…

  7. IBM MetaPad concept realised by Motorola at CES 2011 – now an actual product:

    I just hope this combination takes off, and that the dock connections become standardised so the same laptop dock (and eventually – logically – desktop dock) can be used with any brand of smartphone (Android, MeeGo, etc.).

    Imagine a company dishing out cheap laptop docks to their workforce for use with whatever company Smartphone they have, and if the latop dock is lost a) there is no data on it and b) it’s cheap, so no major financial loss.

    Or a desktop and/or laptop dock being shared by en entire family, each family member having their own make and brand of smartphone.

    This product from Motorola is potentially another example of a “disruptive technology”. Those smartphone manufacturers with significant investment in laptop and desktop hardware/software – such as Apple, Microsoft, Intel, Sony – probably won’t embrace this concept for fear of cannibalising sales from their other high-margin divisions, but it’s an area that is wide open for Nokia to innovate.

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