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Modular computers have been one of the recurring dreams of computing, and after decades of failure, the ASUS PadFone may be about to make the idea a reality. The PadFone is not the same thing, of course. Its innovative leap — which won it won a Best of Innovations award at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas — is to replace the faceless computing module envisaged by companies such as IBM with a smartphone.

The modular computer embodies a simple idea. If you buy half a dozen computers for various uses, then you are paying for half a dozen microprocessors, memory modules, hard drives and so on. This could be avoided by putting these components into a small module that slots into a wide range of docks.

Not only does this save money, it avoids all the problems with synchronising data across different devices. Further, you could easily upgrade the computer module without having to replace all your different docks.

IBM Research called its almost-forgotten version the MetaPad, and its website showed three uses: you could plug your MetaPad module into a desktop PC with full-sized keyboard and screen, into a laptop, or into a tablet. The Modular Computer Company, founded in Houston, Texas, in 2004, extended the idea to include a Vehicle Module (for in-car computing) and a Wearable Module (for computing while walking around).

The specification of MCC’s Modular PC was for a 1GHz processor, 512MB of memory and a 30GB hard drive. Today, that’s the specification of a smartphone, only with Flash memory chips replacing the spinning platters of a small hard drive.

Geeks got super-excited about the MetaPad, the Modular PC, Bug Labs’ micro-PC and similar devices, but either they didn’t go into production or failed to sell. One of the drawbacks was that consumers didn’t see the point unless they actually wanted two or three different docks. Few did. Another was the lack of standardisation. If dozens of manufacturers had supported a standard compute module, it might have become popular, but it was risky to buy a modular system from a small start-up company.

The ASUS PadFone is a fascinating solution to these problems. Instead of a faceless PC module, you get an Android smartphone that works perfectly well as a standalone device. However, you also get to re-use the same electronics by slotting the smartphone it into the tablet dock, which provides extra battery power and a bigger screen. A further expansion becomes possible if the tablet part slots into a keyboard dock, which also has an extra battery — an idea pioneered successfully in the ASUS Transformer.

It’s much like the old modular computer idea, with the same processor, memory and storage being used in a smartphone, a tablet, and a clamshell-style smartbook. Only this time, for the first time, the idea could be a commercial success.

If the PadFone takes off, I hope that ASUS will consider adding further modules, such as in-car and hi-fi docks. Some people might even be interested in having a desktop version, as promised by IBM’s MetaPad. ASUS could also encourage other companies with different specialisations — gaming, cycling, climbing, deep-sea diving, whatever — to create their own docks.

I’ve learned not to go rah-rah-rah over clever ideas because boring sells. However, times have changed in the past decade or two. People no longer expect a single PC to do everything they need. They have accepted the idea of using different devices — tablets, netbooks, laptops, games machines etc — for different purposes. This makes the PadFone a decent bet.

And of course, everybody needs a smartphone.

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