Michael Gartenberg: Motorola Atrix smartphone has a usability vision that stands out

Execution of its big-screen docking capability needs work but is a good first step

One of the more fun parts of my job is getting to see new devices and services as they come to market. Lately, though, it's been less fun, because even the segmens of the market that recently provided the most interesting gadgets are rapidly becoming commoditized. It's hard for me to get excited about a new smartphone or laptop when most of them are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. At both the Consumer Electronics Show and the Mobile World Congress, a plethora of new smartphones was unveiled. Most of them will fail to capture the imagination of consumers, and few will be remembered six months from now.

But the Motorola Atrix leapt out at me with some real differentiation. It's an Android phone and very capable, but that's not anything special right now. It's powered by a Tegra 2 dual-core chip with a super-high-resolution display on AT&Ts 4G network. That's the type of distinction that makes it the best Android device you can buy... this week. It's the sort of distinction that's often short lived.

What separates the Atrix from other phones are the modular accessories it can be used with. Built into the Atrix is a Webtop application based on Ubuntu that offers a full desktop version of Firefox. To take advantage of that, you need to plug the Atrix into one of two docking accessories. One's a small dock that connects to external displays via an HDMI connection and includes a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse for control. The other looks like a small laptop with an 11-inch display. Flip up a connector, and your phone plugs in. In both cases, magic happens. The screen on your monitor or lap dock lights up and you've got full access to the Firefox browser as well as a view of your phone and all its apps. Those apps can then be run in a window (each app running creates a new tab in the app window). The Android app environment can also be run full-screen.

The Atrix takes the idea that smartphones are really PCs that go in your pocket to a new level. Often, the biggest limitation to using a phone for productivity or entertainment is directly related to the relatively small screen size and lack of proper keyboard. The Atrix docks do away with those issues entirely. Using the QuickOffice Android app that's bundled on the device, I was able to write this column starting on my living room TV, continuing on the laptop dock and finishing on my Mac. It's a transformative experience and points the way to the future.

Is it a perfect experience? No. Android was made for touch, and substituting a mouse and keyboard at times made for a somewhat difficult experience. In addition, the multimedia dock costs $190, and the laptop dock if purchased with the phone (which is $199) costs $300, and if purchased separately goes for $500. That's pretty expensive for peripherals that don't have CPUs, RAM or storage and can't be used with any other device on the market. Everything is stored, driven and powered by the phone.

That said, the Atrix pushes the envelope for what a mobile device can be, and the modular integration is nothing short of a breakthrough that I expect to be replicated and evolved over time. The ability to use one device and having to manage only one device is quite appealing, and I expect that we'll see more of this type of implementation in the weeks and months ahead. The benefits to users and IT folk are quite clear. If you want to see the future of how personal computing might evolve, just put a Mototrola Atrix in your pocket.

Michael Gartenberg is a research director at Gartner. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @Gartenberg.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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