Sometimes, a gadget comes along that shakes everything up. Ten years ago, that gadget was the Apple iPod. Four years ago, it was the Apple iPhone. Last year, it was the Apple iPad.
While it's a little early to talk about the gadget that will define 2011, I think it's safe to say that this is the year Apple doesn't manufacture it. That's because someone has leap-frogged Apple's iPhone and iPad with a device that takes advantage of both the processing power of notebook computers and the speed of the next generation of phone networks. That someone is Motorola, and the gadget is the new Motorola Atrix, announced at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas January 5.
The Atrix, at first glance, is just another one of those Android iPhone-lookalikes. But it has (for right now) a unique selling proposition: it takes the speed of 4G wireless networks, the information storage ability of an iPhone or iPad, and the computing power of a fairly powerful laptop computer, and jams them all into a device with a 4-inch diagonal screen. Add to that its "webtop" software (a full-blown Firefox web browser and other Internet features), and the Atrix has just about everything a netbook would need, short of a keyboard.
Until you plug it into its "lapdock", a laptop body with an 11-inch screen and a full keyboard. And then it's a full-blown computer. Or until you plug it into Motorola's HD Media Dock, when it becomes an entertainment system that can send HDTV-quality streaming video and audio to your home entertainment center over a High Definition Media Interface (HDMI) cable. In other words, this is a phone that is also potentially a replacement for your laptop and your home broadband Internet connection.
The Laptop Dock has an 11.6 inch screen, about the size of most netbooks—but it only weights 2.4 pounds. When plugged into the Laptop Dock, the Atrix has an eight-hour battery life thanks to a separate battery in the dock. What this means to you is that if you embrace all those great cloud services for your photos, music, movies and personal data storage, you can virtually always have access, regardless of whether there's WiFi around. Need to run Windows applications for work? You can launch Citrix's XenDesktop to connect to a "virtual" desktop—or you can run their "cloud" equivalents
While it's an evolution rather than a revolution, the fact that Motorola did it first (and not, say, Apple) shows that there are no sure things in technology—and you never know where the next big thing is coming from. And it is also a peak at why desktop PCs are destined to be sitting in the garage next to the 8-tracks, reel-to-reels, the Betamax and the VHS video recorders a lot sooner than you might think.
The downside is that the Atrix will initially be available only for AT&T's upcoming 4G network. That means that you'll have to be in one of the lucky major metropolitan areas that gets 4G service early to really get the most out of the Atrix—where it will have access to data speeds close to or better than what most of us get from our Internet broadband service now.
Motorola says that the Atrix will be available in the "first quarter" of 2011—read that as March. Another version is probably due out for Verizon and other carriers shortly thereafter, but hasn't been announced yet.