The Atrix 4G and our post-PC future

Now that the Atrix 4G and iPad 2 have arrived, the vision of life after the desktop grows clearer

I've been eagerly anticipating the Android-based Motorola Atrix ever since it was announced at CES. Now that it's here, I have to say -- despite some rough edges -- Motorola seems to have pulled it off: This is the most innovative device I've seen in a very long time.

It's more innovative than even the iPad. The basic idea for the iPad (not to mention failed previous attempts at tablets, mostly by Microsoft) has been floating around since the 1980s. The iPad's triumph was in Apple's uncanny ability to sync fresh hardware capabilities with superb software and industrial design, as last week's iPad 2 intro reminded us.

[ Get the latest on the mobile explosion with "Can the Atrix 4G really become your next PC?" and "Welcome to the iPad 2: Inside Apple's new tablet" by InfoWorld's Galen Gruman. | Also see Eric Knorr's "2011: The year personal computing will reinvent itself." ]

The idea behind the Atrix is also more than a decade old -- but much more avant-garde than a tablet. Back in the late 1990s, PC manufacturers talked in hushed tones about a portable "brick" that would serve as your primary computing device and plug into various docks as needed. But that was the PDA era; mobile processors, batteries, and memory were way too wimpy for the idea to bear fruit.

Now, as with the iPad, technology has finally caught up. That's basically what the Atrix is: a brick computer you can use with a dock -- as a desktop or laptop -- or as a smartphone. (In truth, it's a little more complicated; see "Can the Atrix 4G really become your next PC?" and "Test-driving the Motorola Atrix's Lapdock" by InfoWorld's Galen Gruman for details.)

I view the Atrix as a big step toward what I call the "minimal client." The future of computing centers on an individual's data, preferences, and applications, which reside on a server in the cloud. But you need some kind of client to compute.

Unless we're headed to a future of shared kiosks (yuck) or embedded voice-interface computers everywhere (well, someday), it makes sense that the post-PC client would be a high-powered smartphone like the Atrix. It's minimal in the sense that it's a personal-size device with the docking features necessary for you to do real work using a keyboard and screen.

The iPad and iPhone are already headed in this direction. The HDMI connector announced for the iPad 2 also works with the iPhone 4, and of course, Bluetooth keyboards were supported from the beginning.

Now, I realize both iOS and Android have a way to go before they become enterprise-class desktop operating systems. The Atrix gets around that problem with Citrix's ingenious Nirvana software, which enables Android and desktop Linux to run in separate virtual machines on the phone, so when you plug the Atrix in its dock, the smartphone UI and a desktop Firefox browser run side by side. In addition, the Atrix runs Citrix Receiver, enabling you to open remote Windows desktops sessions.

But these are temporary work-arounds. Android and iOS are the fastest-moving objects in tech -- and when you take into account the breakneck evolution of SaaS applications, it's clear the capability gap between mobile and desktop OSes will soon close for good.

The future, my friends, is client-server, with a client in your pocket and a server maintained by a public cloud provider or your company's data center admins. Instead of a five-year PC lifecycle, we'll have a smartphone lifecycle, although what you buy may depend on how much your employer is willing to reimburse you. I hope, at least, your boss pays for the dock.

This article, "The Atrix 4G and our post-PC future," originally appeared at Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog, and for the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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