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Breakthrough device of CES: Motorola Atrix = Phone + PC

The idea of a smartphone that could also be a desktop PC has been around for years, but Motorola surprised us at CES 2011 by delivering the first product that brings that idea to life.

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:

  1. Desktop PC mode with keyboard, mouse, and display
  2. TV mode with a remote
  3. 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.

About

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.

24 comments
Allen Halsey
Allen Halsey

"Pretty soon [your smartphone is] going to be powerful enough to not only be your phone but to also your computer... You'll have access to all of your personal apps, data, and preferences at any desk that has dock." Here are three reasons why the above scenario will not play out: 1) Can you really imagine a mobile professional looking around for a monitor/keyboard/mouse docking station? Do you also think public pay phones will make a come back? 2) With the recent trend of super-light super-thin notebook computers, such as the aggressively priced 11.6 Apple MacBook Air, it is no great burden to carry computing power with you. 3) The cloud. I can use gmail on my smartphone and switch to my notebook without missing a beat. Ditto for Google Docs. With the added the benefits of collaboration and safe storage, I don't see how running apps from a smartphone can compare. While cloud computing still has challenges, it is improving at a rapid pace. For example, offline access to Google Docs is expected soon. I'd place my bets on cloud computing from several devices, not on running desktop apps on my smartphone at a docking station. Allen

fuzzybunnyfeet
fuzzybunnyfeet

A powerful tablet that I could use as a phone via bluetooth? Hell yes. Give me a full Java VM that runs under Android and I'd be even happier. Even if I had to connect to an external drive at home to do development. I for one would love to be able to move to one device for phone, computing and multimedia.

lwa83
lwa83

Ive been watching some of the videos of the Atrix at www.motorola-atrix.net The webtop application and a smartphone powered PC is definitely going to be a game changer, I wonder if we will see smartphone powered media pc's that dock directly to tv's, like a lot of small stereo/alarm clocks have ipod docks currently

Justin James
Justin James

... just wish it wasn't Android. Android can't scale to a tablet, let alone a full PC. It has awful UI. iOS has proven it can scale up. WP7 has the best development story. Android is really the odd man out, with nothing going for it in this race, other than its current momentum. J.Ja

scottcp36
scottcp36

Seriously? You expect people to use a supposedly full-fledged PC that has Android and smartphone-level processing power to replace their current Desktop/Laptop? Not gonna happen for most people. Most users are used to Mac or Windows for their operating environment, and the power that a full-size PC offers is far superior to even a dual-core mobile chip. I don't see this catching on..

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

... but as a number of my predecessors in this thread have already commented, it may be 'just slightly ahead of its time' as Panasonic once put it. I think it's a great concept, but the power of the phone and the OS itself is a bit too weak for true productivity. Yes, I know the same is said about the iPhone and iPad, but the OS there has proven its abilities as a productivity tool where Android still has some issues. I think Android 3.0 is going to come closer to what this concept needs.

emitretsam
emitretsam

I like the device and will probably buy something similar in the future as a laptop and phone replacement/upgrade combo. This type of device will probably gain traction with the right features and price point. It would be fit certain corporate users (in the form of a Blackberry or iPhone offering). My wish list for this device as others point out are: 1) Different mobile provider and wi-fi mode where I can use this for voice calls (at home or on the go) 2) Maybe bluetooth if wi-fi is not possible to interact with legacy devices like printers or certain phone systems that enable handset redirection. 3) Agree that ChromeOS/Web browser should be an option. There are different preferences and Motorola should consider this - another device offering? These devices are likely to be the future, and I hope Motorola or other manufacturers get it right. Consumers need the easy to use and versatile forms for both computing and communications.

mckinnej
mckinnej

I guess I'm confused. I've got my own bias here and I think Jason does too. Bias might be a harsh word. Paradigm might be a little easier to swallow, but the results are the same; our outlooks are skewed due to our situation and experiences. Jason appears to see work and life as the same thing. He probably works as much at home and on the road as he does in the office. Naturally, a portable device would be a godsend to someone like him. Rather than deal with 3 or more computing devices, he could have it all in one highly portable device. It's hard to imagine anything that could make his life easier. However for folks like me this is a non-event, even a distraction from what I need. My job is one thing and my life is something else. So too are my computers. The two rarely cross paths, so any attempt to merge the two is actually detrimental to me. Besides, my personal computer is far more powerful than what I'm typing on right now and odds are anything portable would be too. The biggest move I've made toward portable was the purchase of a netbook back when the trend was new. It works well for work, but on a personal level, it is basically just a web browser. So why am I confused? Well, I'm not sure if I'm in the majority or Jason or if there is an even split. Should I be paying attention to this and be ready for how it could be forced on me or just write it off as something of interest to "those people"? Although my geeky side loves this stuff from a toy perspective, I honestly don't see this impacting either my work or personal life in the foreseeable future. Am I missing something?

kashyap.bikram
kashyap.bikram

Apple or MS makes it and then the fan boys will make a hue and cry that it is the greatest and best looking and most user friendly (last 2 points not for MS) product ever developed. Till then Motorola will have a small adapters for a device which might be superior to the devices that the big names will develop, when a lot of people will adapt it (not the motorola, the one developed by MS or Apple).

apotheon
apotheon

> WP7 has the best development story. . . . for .NET developers. > Android is really the odd man out, with nothing going for it in this race, other than its current momentum. A rooted Android device has more going for it than either of the other two, as far as I can tell. The problem is that a non-jailbroken Android device is kind of gimpy -- and I don't currently have so much need of desktop power in my pocket that I'm willing to void my warranties. I suspect that, in the long run, the real value of Android will be that it spurs further interest in open source OS development and commercial use of such software on mobile platforms. We just need the hype around the Android platform itself to give way to such development; at that point, we'll get more power and flexibility than all four of the current primary mobile software platforms combined (Apple iOS, Google Android, Microsoft WP7, and RIM Blackberry). At least, I hope so. If that doesn't happen that way, I guess we'll just have to wait a decade for such an endeavor to bear fruit under some other circumstances, and in the meantime we can all be pathetic with our gimpy pocket OSes.

paul.ob.tech
paul.ob.tech

most people have wayyy too much processing power, my old netbook has about the same power as a 8-10 year old server had. 90% of businees users were quite happy with 1 processor @ 1GHz and most couldn't tell if they had more. What is needed is leaner software not reliant on continual upgraded hardware to function properly. Add a good nearfield gigabit network connection and it would probably work well, contacts are so prone to problems.

egmccann
egmccann

the love of "power" for most people. How many people just use their quad-core, 4-6-8 Gb RAM systems to... read email? Talk to the kids/grandkids/family? Play solitaire or other, light (if not just browser-based) games? No, this won't replace the Excel mavin's system, the engineer's setup, places where security is more important (I can't imagine locking these down,) the gamer, the photoshop wiz's PCs. But mom-and-pop and light use? Sure.

disasterboy.info
disasterboy.info

... but it does indicate the start. Whats really required to make it work is a properly scalable OS that can do phone to tablet to desktop to server to cloud OS... The only real candidate at the moment , and I think it also has a long way to go, is actually Linux. Thinking strategic alliances between computer and phone manufacturers over next few years... The US carrier lockdowns do slow down the whole market development to some extent.

mckinnej
mckinnej

I've talked to a lot of my co-workers and although everyone thinks it is cool from a concept and tech perspective, no one would buy one, even the road warriors. The big flaw is the lack of productivity in what I'll call the mobile mode. In a nutshell, once the device is un-docked it basically becomes a reader. Content creation would be difficult to near impossible. (The same problem many see with the iPad.) So the road warriors still need a notebook or at least a netbook to accomplish their mobile tasks. Some folks are saying this might be ahead of its time, but I'm wondering if there will ever be a time. Unless they can come up with some way to make people productive, and I mean really productive, this setup will be a dead end. I suspect this device will be pretty much limited to the gadget/toy freaks.

gechurch
gechurch

I can see great appeal for a device like this for both home and business. Another commenter has already made the business case. On the home side there may well be more appeal. I know loads of people that do nothing other than consume content. They check their FaceBook account every four and a half minutes. They watch music videos on YouTube. They read web sites. A device like this would be great for them. I can think of people that could throw away their laptop in favour of a device like this, and not lose any functionality. I don't think this is a device for "those people" or even so geeks (although I'm very impressed by the concept and could think of many advantages a device like this would have for me). Geeks tend to create, and want control and speed. They want Photoshop and Visual Studio and their shell. If you're looking for a market, you can start by looking at pretty much everyone that owns an iPhone or an iPad.

thoiness
thoiness

It's most likely valuable to those who have a business need to be on the road all the time, or those that don't need the high end, full featured computing device to accomplish their goal. PCs will not be replaced by these devices because you can't pack the full power of a 3 foot tower into a 4" device. From what I've seen, the video processors aren't getting any smaller, and the dual core high performance architectures are not getting any smaller either. You need a device for motel hopping on the road, or a device without all the features of a home computing device? This is the optimal solution. Otherwise, I think it would be overzealous to assume that this would saturate the PC market (much like it was overzealous to assume that tablets would replace the household PC).

Par-Pro
Par-Pro

because now I can stand right next to you and steal you whole computer without you even knowing it.

gechurch
gechurch

It can't be that big of a flaw if it's the same on the iPad has - the iPad seems to be selling plenty of units. And not just to gadget/toy freaks.

apotheon
apotheon

> If this did take off, someone would ship a more open device (ie. Nexus vs Droid). I've been consistently disappointed by the performance of such efforts so far. Part of the problem, of course, is the FCC essentially making it illegal for anyone but a major corporation to manufacture mobile connectivity devices, and service carriers making something with only a toy-level of computing power cost as much as a brand new high-end laptop if its software doesn't come wrapped in chains. Motorola has started trying to sell me the next major device release bearing the same name as the smartphone I carry around in my pocket. I'm disappointed enough in the restrictions on the current device, wasting its potential, that I have to give a bitter laugh to the idea of wanting to buy more of the same. . . . and now, the only corporation that had the guts to say "no" to software lockdown (Nokia), has given up on its open platform entirely in favor of WP7 -- the same garbage as everyone else, in many ways no different from Android and iOS. I'm feeling grumpy about the state of the pocket-sized computer today.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I remember being amazed by pod computer concepts at least a decade ago. At the time it was a hard drive sized brick; basically a PDA with hard drive. You docked it at home, you docked it at work and inbetween it functioned in PDA mode. home and work could both have task specific docking stations and the phone may even differentiate between home and work (for those who keep them very seporate). Given tech at the time, the idea was that your docking stations would have a big processor and additional hardware while your brick had a humble processing power. Fast forward and "PDA" has become "mobile device" but the concept is the same. Geeks may not be interested in Motorola's implementation if they ship it defective like the logic bombed Android phones. I don't see the need to lock the device down beyond owner's control as a requirement of the concept though. If this did take off, someone would ship a more open device (ie. Nexus vs Droid).

thoiness
thoiness

The online Google word processor isn't half bad and should run in an Android browser and be compatible with most document types. It's not the ideal solution, but for on-the-go, it's better than using your phone? I suppose if you are specifically interested in journalism, it may not be the best choice. A laptop that costs roughly the same would seem like the most sane choice in that scenario.

egmccann
egmccann

What else - given that it's running in a web browser, probably the Google office apps. I *can* see this being useful for traveling professionals and such. I see it as useless for me, of course, but I use my system differently. What needs to happen, though, IMHO is that the smartphone (and tablet) manufacturers have to set up a standard for the docks and what goes over them, how they transfer to the screen, deal with a network, etc. Then let the hotels set up universal docks, let the businesses set them up in offices, and let the users just sit down, plug in and take care of things.

tony.sycamores
tony.sycamores

Looks good except I'm still frustrated by the lack of any sensible word processing or spread sheet apps with Android. Makes this look next to useless?