PC in your pocket

For me, one of the most interesting apps to be released so far for my Nokia N8—and perhaps showing the greatest potential in the long run—is Big Screen. This comes from Nokia’s Beta Labs division, where one of the company’s biggest assets (its R&D and “blue sky thinking”) gets given full rein; apps from Beta Labs (or lessons learned from them) often end up as standards on Nokia’s handsets within a year or two.

On the face of it, Nokia Big Screen is impressive enough. When an N8 owner connects their device to a display with an HDMI port (e.g. an HD TV, monitor, etc.), Big Screen starts up, and basically takes over the phone. The touchscreen becomes a remote-control keypad, and a specially-designed/optimised HD interface appears on the external HDMI display.

Big Screen, at time of writing, allows the user to browse the photos, videos and music on their N8 (and any other Nokia with an HDMI port) via their HD TV. It works very well, especially with Big Screen’s other “ace in the hole”: you can use a Bluetooth keyboard (my Apple Wireless Keyboard does the job nicely) or a Wii remote controller (Wiimote) to operate the Big Screen interface from a distance. (I’m thinking how I’d like a Wiimote just for this purpose—especially if I can also use the controller as a pointing device. Angry Birds with a Wiimote on our TV: yes please! 🙂 )

I’d be happy with Big Screen, even if this was as far as the idea ends up getting taken. However, I am even more interested in the potential it shows, which I wonder whether the Beta Labs folk have had in the back of their mind.

Big Screen has shown that it is possible to “take over” the phone and make it display a customised, high-res interface on an HDMI screen. Question: what if that interface were not merely a front-end for multimedia content, but a whole “PC desktop”?

Ever since mobile phones started getting TV output capabilities (e.g. the Nokia N95 in 2007), some more imaginative mobile tech writers have been wondering whether the mobile phone could one day replace a netbook or laptop. (Exhibit A: Steve Litchfield’s prescient series on the N95’s TV possibilities, from 2007.) The idea still stands: connect your phone to a TV—and better still, link it up to a Bluetooth keyboard and/or pointing device (mouse, Wiimote, etc.)—and presto, you have a viable personal computing setup.

Problem is: until now, the TV output merely replicates the phone display on the connected TV, at the same resolution. (This is also the default on the N8 without Big Screen, although photos and videos are displayed over HDMI at HD resolution.) Big Screen demonstrates that it is possible to substitute a high-resolution alternative interface on a mobile device over HDMI; also, the N8 has “out of the box” support for USB and Bluetooth pointing devices. Put all this together, and you have a potential “PC in your pocket”.

Other manufacturers are already thinking in this direction. An accessory designed for Motorola’s newly-announced Atrix 4G Android smartphone, is a laptop-like “docking station”—slot in the phone, and the dock’s keyboard and display activate, effectively turning the phone into a netbook.

Of course, this approach isn’t going to suit everyone (and I know I am particularly partial to “geeky” activities like this 😉 ), but the possibility is there—not everyone wants to lug around both a phone and a laptop, and why squint at a laptop screen when you can enjoy the experience on an HD TV?

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