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Smartphones, tablets and the search for technology's Holy Grail

The one device to rule them all simply doesn't exist

I just want a single, connected mobile device that can do everything, is that so much to ask?

The problem with being a technology journalist is that you can become divorced from the reality of what consumers want. They’ll deny it now, but plenty of hacks initially loved Windows Vista’s sheen and polish; users saw only a slower PC. I’ve seen dozens of ‘amazing’ products and services that failed: they worked well, but did nothing that most of us really want.

Conversely, I don’t recall too many technology purists getting excited when the Asus Eee PC first reared its ugly plastic head. But the little white laptops flew off the shelves in huge numbers, and me-too products appeared before the industry had time to settle on the term ‘netbook’.

From a technology perspective, the only interesting thing about netbooks at launch was that the Atom chip allowed them to boot faster and work longer away from mains power than standard laptops. Netbooks aren’t good at anything, but they offer something approaching a full computing experience, on the move, and they don’t cost much.

Throw in ubiquitous connectivity, and my last sentence also describes the tablet PC proposition. I say ‘proposition’ because, with the honourable exception of the Apple iPad, I’ve yet to see a tablet that can truly be described as an alternative to a laptop.

But then, anyone who’s ever used a netbook for any length of time will give a two-fingered salute to the idea of that form factor being the ultimate portable solution (if their fingers are still able, after tiny keyboard typing).

Technology’s Holy Grail is an always-connected, portable device that offers everything a desktop PC can, on the move.

Apple has its iPad, stylishly bridging the relatively small gap between MacBook Air and iPhone. That Microsoft is desperate not to be left behind can be seen in its massive investment in Windows Phone 7 and cloud computing.

Google is hedging its bets with Android for tablets and Chrome OS for netbooks. Both have merit: the sheer volume of tablet PCs running Android is testament to its promise and flexibility. And the idea of Chrome – an operating system that works entirely online – is inspired.

But the reality isn’t yet matching the rhetoric. I have a 7in Samsung Galaxy Tab. It fits in my pocket and provides instant access to web and email. The multimedia capabilities are great. But one device to rule them all it is not. It’s more of a big phone than a small laptop, and I increasingly find myself travelling with smartphone, tablet and laptop, rather than a single unifying gadget.

As to Chrome, the geek in me loves the concept, but restricting people to working only online requires consumers to pay netbook prices for an even more limited device. After all, you can work online on a netbook now.

The Holy Grail of technology doesn’t yet exist. The nearest thing we have is a holy trinity: you, your smartphone and a laptop.

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