Over the past couple years when people have asked me for a prediction of a cool technology that's coming in the future, my favorite scenario has been to pull out a smartphone and say, "You see this little device? Pretty soon it's going to be powerful enough to not only be your phone but to also your computer. When you sit down at your desk, you'll set the phone on a wireless dock/charger (like the Palm Touchstone) that will be connected to a keyboard, mouse, and monitor. You'll have access to all of your personal apps, data, and preferences at any desk that has dock. There will even be docking laptop shells where you slide in your phone to dock it the way you used to slide in a DVD. It will be the end of 80% of all personal PCs."
This wasn't an original idea of mine, just my spin it. People in the tech industry have been talking about this idea for years. I can remember Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates saying that this would likely be the way the developing world would eventually join the PC revolution. That was about a decade ago.
I had no idea how that we were so close to this idea becoming a reality.
I certainly didn't expect to see it at this year's Consumer Electronics Show. So, you can imagine my surprise when at Motorola's press conference on Wednesday, the company trotted out the Atrix 4G (above), a new dual core smartphone that contains an extra surprise: a piece of "Webtop" software that allows it to function like a full PC when connected in one of three docking modes:
- Desktop PC mode with keyboard, mouse, and display
- TV mode with a remote
- Laptop mode, with a special laptop-like dock
The other surprise is that it actually works remarkably well, at least in the demos and the little bit of hands-on time that I got with the product. It doesn't have the wireless dock/charger that I was hoping for and the laptop docking placement is bit awkward, but the Atrix is a viable product that an average user could figure out relatively easily and use to handle most of their computer work and play. It's not without its challenges -- which we'll talk more about in a second --but this is a landmark product that is likely to spawn lots of copycats and a shift in computing that could be even more significant than the current shift that's happening with tablets.
How does it work?
In addition to the Android OS that powers the Atrix, it has an extra little piece of software inside that Motorola calls the "Webtop" (an amalgam of Web + desktop). This is essentially a little OS that launches when the Atrix is placed on its side and docked via its USB and HDMI ports into one of its two docks -- the desktop/multimedia dock or the laptop dock. It's not a full OS with a bunch of its own apps, but primarily a Firefox Web browser and a desktop environment for your Android apps.
Because it's small and light, it also feels surprisingly fast. No doubt, that's due in part to the fact that it's running a dual core NVIDIA Tegra2 CPU, but software itself feels pretty efficient and well-designed. The UI looks like a simplified combo of Mac and Windows.
The big question I had was what happens to your phone while it's docked? Can you still answer calls? Can you access your data and apps on the phone? The way Motorola has handled this is to give the phone its own Window and a shortcut on the launch bar at the bottom of the screen. Whenever you click the phone icon the software window appears with Atrix home screen. From there, you can anything you normally do with the phone, including making calls (using the speakerphone or a Bluetooth headset). You can also open Android apps from the phone Window and click a button to send them out to the desktop environment in full screen. If the apps have a landscape mode, then this works especially well because then it truly fills the screen. The mouse actions simply take the place of touch gestures in the UI.
The two photos below provide a look at the Atrix in its two PC docking modes as well as a peek at the Webtop UI. In the second photo, notice the phone window on the left that has the Atrix home screen.
Here is the Motorola Atrix in its desktop/multimedia dock. Photo credit: Jason Hiner | TechRepublic
Here is the Motorola Atrix in its laptop dock. Photo credit: Jason Hiner | TechRepublic
Is it time?
After I was convinced that the Atrix is real and functional, my next question was whether the market was ready for the product? Are there users who would be willing to dump their desktop or laptop and use this as a primary computing device? Judging by the fact that a lot of people tend to have a much more personal attachment to their smartphones than their PCs and keep a lot of their most important data on their smartphones, I think the answer is probably affirmative -- at least for people who do most of their stuff in a Web browser when they use a PC.
There are still some significant questions and challenges with the Atrix, such as how well will it be able to print and will you be able to attach an external digital camera or memory card to pull in pictures and data? I'm sure the software will be a work-in-progress. But , so far it looks better than I would have expected for a first generation attempt at this idea of smartphone-PC convergence.
I think we would have naturally expected to see something like this from Microsoft or Apple, but both of them have likely shied away from the idea in fear of cannibalizing some of their PC cash cows. Hats off to Motorola for having the vision to get there first and producing what appears to be a solid first effort at the concept.
However, the other big problem with the Atrix specifically is that it is exclusively locked to AT&T in the US market, and we're all aware of the problems that AT&T has had in the US because of the data overload caused by the iPhone. That will limit the appeal of the Atrix. If this device was running on Verizon's new 4G LTE network, it would be a lot more appealing. Of course, we can expect that Motorola will eventually bring the Webtop concept to other phones on additional carriers in the future.
My other small beef with the Atrix is that the design of the phone itself is nothing special. It has a lot of plastic and has a generic design similar to the Samsung Galaxy S phones. For a phone that packs so much power on the inside, I would have liked to have seen a higher-end design on the outside.
Still, I see the Motorola Atrix as the most important new product coming out of CES 2011. This could very well be the watershed product that we look back on a decade from now as the one that started a revolution in the way we think about and use our computing devices. I still see the HTC Thunderbolt as the best smartphone coming out of CES because of its superior design and breakneck LTE 4G speeds. The Thunderbolt will have a bigger impact on 2011, but the Atrix will have a much bigger impact on 2015.
See the video below for a 4.5-minute demo of the Atrix that I recorded at Motorola's CES booth. You can also watch a larger version of the demo on YouTube.
Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.