Convergence: The Holy Grail?

Back in 2003 I jammed an Ericsson chatboard into the bottom of my Sony Ericsson T610 and tried to use it to write drafts of blog posts during my hour-each-way commute to work on the subways of New York. While the chatboard was awesome for thumb-typing, I was limited to 140 characters per “draft” and soon found myself giving up on running a blog and instead went back to reading a book on the way to and from my day job.

Back in 2005 I jammed a SE audio adapter into the bottom of my w800i Walkman phone, and plugged a pair of fancy-pants earphones into the 3.5mm headphone jack on the other end. Since cell phones didn’t have normal headphone jacks back in those days, this was the only way I could connect a decent pair of earphones between me and my musicphone. On the one hand the setup involved a ton of cable and two ungainly adapters. On the other hand the music sounded awesome and I didn’t have to carry both my phone and my iPod with me.

Back in 2007 I bought an Apple iPhone. Suddenly I had Email, Web and an iPod with me wherever I went. Too bad I had to buy a dongle to use my own headphones with the thing. Stupid Apple and their stupid first-gen iPhone with its stupid recessed headphone jack.

The quest for convergence, which I like to scientifically define as, “Mashing-up as many devices as possible into one single device,” has long been something of a holy grail for geeks and the ubergeeks who engineer their products. Sometimes convergence yields great results, like said iPhone. Sometimes convergence doesn’t work out so well, like Apple’s first attempt at an “iTunes phone,” the Motorola E790. And sometimes convergence just comes ahead of its time, like another Motorola product, the awesomely ambitious and overly-complicated MPx, a 2004 device that featured about 300 buttons and almost as many hinges built into its “opens nine ways” clamshell design.

Here and now in 2011, Motorola’s at the whole convergence thing again, this time with the Atrix 4G mobile computer for AT&T. I say “mobile computer” and not “smartphone” because Moto’s made it quite clear that Atrix speaks to their vision of a near-term future where computers are modular, dockable beasts that we strip down to carry in our pockets and build back up again when we need to interact with them via bigger screens, more buttons, or 7.2 surround sound speaker systems. In this way the concept isn’t so much different from a cell phone that requires an external thumbboard for typing or two dongles and 10′ of cable for listening to music; it’s just that half a decade or so later, my humble musicphone is now a full-on superphone packing a dual-core processor and gigabytes’ worth of flash storage, thus readying it for serious computing.

I got a bit of hands-on time with Atrix and its laptop and multimedia docks during Motorola’s launch event – as did Jon, in the video above. This is an impressive piece of kit, no doubt, capable of everything from 1080p video playback to full HTML5 and Flash 10.1 Web browsing. While not yet in final form, Atrix was responsive to the touch, fast to launch apps and render Web pages, and perhaps most impressive in its smooth transition from “Android in my pocket” to “Webtop on my monitor.” Webtop is, of course, Motorola’s new app that creates a desktop-OS style experience when Atrix is docked to a laptop or desktop monitor. While Webtop isn’t a full-on OS like Windows 7 or Mac OS X, it should prove pretty useful given the growing number of Web apps supported by the HTML5/Flash combo. A docked Atrix also provides access to the full smartphone-style Android experience by way of a separate, tabbed window that can run side-by-side next to the Webtop browser on your monitor.

Motorola’s not the first company to see the whole smartphone-docks-to-keyboard/monitor/mouse thing as its vision of “The Computer of Tomorrow … Today!” Palm tried it with the Foleo and Celio tried it with the Redfly, for starters. Neither of those plays was particularly successful, but like the Moto MPx, they may well have just been too far ahead of their time. Atrix 4G is arguably the first attempt at the docking mobile computer to have the hardware and software chops to make good on the promise of dockable magick and mobile unicorns.

But what if the technology wasn’t the problem with Foleo and Redfly? What if the whole idea is just flawed to begin with? I get the idea: All of your files, all of your contacts, all of your connectivity, always with you. Cell phones are one of our most intimate possessions, literally, in that they’re with us just about all day long, often in the closest proximity to our bodies (jeans pocket, purse, clenched in a sweaty fist), so it makes sense on one level to go beyond contacts and email and photos and pile spreadsheets and video files and CAD/CAM projects onto the the things, too. I mean, you don’t want to be caught in a rainstorm without that whatever it is file, right? Making your phone your computer can fix all of that.

Then again, so can this “cloud” thing I’ve been hearing so much about. And so here’s my dilemma in pondering the whole dockable superphone model: Would I rather carry a phone and a laptop dock or a phone and a separate laptop with separate processing power, separate storage and a separate battery? And if I can just keep all of my files in Google Docs or Dropbox or wherever, would I rather have them all in my pocket on a superphone that can dock with the HDMI and USB stuff on my desk, or would I rather have them all on a server somewhere and access them from my phone and/or my desktop computer depending on my needs and locale?

The answer is likely a very subjective one, dependent on you and your preferences, which is befitting of an industry that sells such “intimate objects.” It also has as much to do with software as it does hardware. The Atrix 4G with its Tegra 2 dual-core innards and 4G/WiFi antennas is most impressive, as is what I saw of the Webtop interface. But I edit video just about every day for my job. So until a quality video editor that I like using comes to the Webtop platform, I’m either carrying and Atrix and a Mac laptop or no Atrix at all. You, you might need CAD/CAM software, or a special BitTorrent client or whatever … if it doesn’t run inside of an HTML5/Flash browser, then you’re gonna need a proper laptop next to that laptop dock.

That, of course, will all change in due time. The geeks around the blogosphere who’ve professed love for Atrix have generally done so by way of saying, “This is a glimpse of the future, and for that we luvz it.” I get it and I can’t disgaree; on a purely nerdcore level, Atrix 4G is super cool. Me, I think I’d be more interested in it as an HDMI-out media center for my TV than a desktop/laptop replacement, but that’s basically the same idea with the same set of concerns: Do I want to carry my home theater around with me everywhere? What if it doesn’t support my VUDU subscription? And so on.

Convergence is cool. Sometimes convergence works out splendidly. And sometimes it doesn’t. Kudos to Motorola and its partners for pushing the convergence envelope with the Atrix 4G and its family of peripherals. I can’t wait to see what it can do once its in the wild and software developers start coding for it. That doesn’t mean I’m ready to trade my laptop and TiVo in on one, but it does mean I’m psyched that the thing exists and that if it’s at all successful it’s sure to inspire competitors.

Speaking of which a little birdy told me Samsung’s been working on their “Atrix Killer” for years now. And that it’ll make Atrix look like a toy. Of course talk is cheap, so let’s just wait and see on that one …