Author(s): Raghu Gopal
In early 2011, Motorola introduced its Android-based Atrix 4G phone. It was a rather standard high-end Android device for the time but was one of the first to feature a 1 GHz dual-core processor. It also had a four-inch display, a five-megapixel camera and a fingerprint reader.
Even back then, phone manufacturers were making moves to stand out in an increasingly crowded market. Motorola offered an accessory for the Atrix 4G phone called the HD Multimedia Dock, which provided the user with a desktop-like experience powered by a smartphone. The dock was equipped with an HDMI port and three USB ports, enabling the phone to be connected to an external display and input devices such as a keyboard and mouse. Motorola's Webtop app offered a modern graphical user interface with a full version of the Firefox browser.
It was an enticing concept but demand was very limited at the time. Laptops and smartphones were still two diverse worlds. There was certainly an initial allure for some travellers that they could leave their laptop behind, but Motorola's efforts didn't convince customers.
In late 2015, Microsoft introduced its Continuum architecture, which allowed users to connect a Windows 10 Mobile device to an external monitor and input devices for a Windows desktop experience. Why buy two Windows computers when you really just need one? It was certainly logical reasoning. Microsoft expected Continuum to be a key attraction to Windows phones. It didn't happen.
Last week, when Samsung introduced DeX as an accessory to its new flagship smartphones, the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus, we were reminded of the past intentions of Motorola and Microsoft. Are things so different this time around?
Samsung has the advantage of a popular line of premium phones. The Galaxy sub-brand will sell itself. The unveiling of Samsung DeX at the company's Unpacked events offered an additional "wow" moment for a phone that would have made headlines one way or another. While Continuum appeared to be an effort to make Windows fly as a mobile platform, Samsung demonstrated DeX as an accessory for anyone who already had plans to buy the S8 handset.
It's unlikely that enterprise clients will be lining up to replace their PC fleets with phones, although Samsung should be applauded for partnering with Amazon Web Services, Citrix and VMware to allow users to remotely and securely access virtual desktops (see Instant Insight: Galaxy S8 Is Samsung's Most Important Launch for a Decade). We also don't expect many consumers will abandon desktops for phones. Nonetheless, Samsung DeX could be in an auspicious position given evolving user behaviour. Thin clients, namely Chromebooks, are winning fans with cloud-based services and storage.
Another development is the increasing restrictions of laptops and tablets on flights. If bans become more widespread, business travellers could look to use smartphones as temporary replacements, further encouraging acceptance of the concept of laptops and handsets converging.
It should be noted that the Galaxy S8 is not a less expensive alternative to a laptop. The device starts at $750 and the DeX station costs $150. And this is without an external monitor, keyboard or mouse.
Samsung offers an appealing package in DeX and its onstage demonstration of the product reminded us of just how powerful flagship phones have become. It's fascinating that a pocketable device has the aptitude to work through complex spreadsheets and long presentations, but the barriers to converting a phone into a PC are still high — convenience comes at a price.
Samsung realises that DeX isn't an alternative to a PC; instead it offers an enhancement to the experience of owning the latest Galaxy flagship handset. At present, DeX should be regarded as a smartphone enhancement rather than a computer replacement.