Over the past few years, the smartphone has become a polymath of gadgets. It downloads and uploads on demand; it plays and records pictures, music and video; it knows where in the world you are; it even senses which way you're holding it. • But to most other electronic items, a smartphone only lets you make phone calls.
The industry is finally starting to realize this problem, but one of the first, flawed attempts to fix it only illustrates how much work remains.
That would be Motorola's Atrix Android smartphone and its associated LapDock. By itself, the LapDock — $399.99 separately, or $300 extra before a $100 mail-in rebate when bought with the $199.99 Atrix — can't do anything.
Instead, the dock borrows the phone's processor, storage, software and AT&T HSPA+ mobile broadband. In return, it lends the phone an 11.6-inch screen, a keyboard and trackpad and a few add-on programs, including the Firefox browser.
The results are a mess. Beyond selling for more than many netbooks, the LapDock is slow and suffers from some maddening design defects.
But it does demonstrate that netbooks don't need their own mobile broadband. Neither do tablet computers. When your smartphone can share its connection, why pay for that extra hardware and service?
Yet tablets and laptops alike come bundled with broadband — and in some cases, such as with Samsung's Galaxy Tab and Motorola's Xoom tablet, they arrive unaccompanied by cheaper, WiFi-only models.
The Atrix represents one way out of that mess. But it would be simpler to make wireless or wired "tethering" a standard feature on phones — as is the case on the Verizon iPhone, even if it comes at an extra monthly price.
Tinkering types have another option. If you "jailbreak" an iPhone or install extra software on an Android phone, you can get this capability for free.
Auto manufacturers have also been slow to realize they need to work with phones. Although almost all new cars include a simple line-in jack to connect a smartphone, most only employ Bluetooth wireless for speakerphone use, not to connect the phone to the car stereo.
And having the phone's own navigation software displayed on the car's larger LCD remains a press-release promise.
Things aren't much better in the living room. Projecting photos, music or video from a phone to a TV has traditionally needed a proprietary dock.
Many of the pieces are already in the market, waiting for somebody to click them together in an elegant manner.
But wireless video sharing still seems stuck on pause.
Digital cameras might need more help from phones than any other device.
They can beat phones for picture quality, but they lose the competition after taking the picture. Phones can tag pictures with GPS coordinates automatically and then e-mail and upload then within seconds.
The bigger problem lies outside the phone industry. For all this to become reality, competing companies in multiple markets will have to settle on the same standards. And that's one of the hardest tricks to pull off in the electronics industry.