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Sunday, 24 July 2011 22:20

Linux all-in-one phone and computer so near, so far

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For six months I longed for the Motorola Atrix Android smartphone first announced in January. That was, until I got one and reality fell short of my utopian vision. Now I must beseech Motorola, telcos and Linux hackers alike to bring my dream to fruition.

Motorola hit headlines as the year kicked off by announcing a top-end high-powered Android smartphone dubbed the Atrix during CES at Las Vegas.

Dual-core processors, nVidia chipset, 1Gb internal RAM ... the specifications went on but I fell into glazed torpor as soon as I spied the collection of docking accessories designed for it.

The Atrix, you see, was no mere smartphone. It was a super device, capable of replacing your mobile phone, your laptop, your in-car navigation, your desktop computer and home media centre all with one central gadget and smart peripherals.

At least, that was the promise. Part of it is true. The HD dock will play movies, music and photographs onto a high-definition multimedia system. The car dock will give you turn-by-turn directions.

Yet, when it comes to being a laptop replacement (via the laptop dock) or desktop computer (via the HD dock and Bluetooth or USB-cabled mouse and keyboard) the Atrix comes screaming back to reality from my techno fantasy.

On the one hand, the docks are impressive. The Atrix detects what it has been plugged into and changes behaviour to suit. So, plug it into the windscreen or dash-mounted car dock and it changes from being a typical phone with tiny buttons to a compact mode with six fat man finger-sized options. Swiping left or right gives opportunity to add more and more shortcuts but the defaults allow you to call contacts with hands-free mode enabled, invoke Google navigation (or other) software and so forth. Admittedly, the car dock is pretty good.

Yet, what I really was excited by - perhaps so much that I neglected to pay attention to the detail - was the laptop dock. This is an extremely light-weight dock for the phone which looks like, well, a laptop, or perhaps more realistically a netbook. This 11" unit sports a keyboard, screen, touchpad and battery but no disk or processor of its own.

 


 

When docked, the Atrix fires up Motorola's Webtop application that provides a scaled-down Ubuntu-like experience on the laptop dock's screen.

Never mind you're interacting through what amounts to little more than a dumb terminal; suddenly your smartphone has morphed - as if it were literally a Transformer autobot - into an ultra-portable laptop computer.

All the connectivity options of the Atrix - WiFi, 3G, Bluetooth - are present, as is full-screen video and audio.

This is where I dreamed a dream which apparently Motorola did not. Or, if they did, one they did not bring to life.

I fancied the Atrix as being my phone, running phone apps and giving tiny-screen access to important documents while in my hand. Then, arriving at my destination, I whip the laptop dock from my backpack and set to work.

Editing documents? No problem - using a combination of DropBox and Office suites I would process words, crunch numbers and design presentations with alacrity.

Remote access? Not a worry. I would fire up VPN, RDP, VNC and Citrix apps to manage a plethora of diverse servers.

At least, that's what I saw in my mind.

 


 

I waited, waited patiently for the Atrix. It turned from Motorola announcement to real product. The months went on. It was released in the US. Time marched on. Telstra released it in Australia in early June.

It still took another month and a lot of pestering before Telstra could finally supply a laptop dock. Threats of buying from Optus or Vodafone once Telstra's exclusivity ran out coupled with pleas to my corporate Telstra rep eventually produced the goods.

And then my bubble burst.

In my hand the Atrix is a powerhouse. It has loads of grunt. It swallows apps in its stride.

Yet, in the laptop dock it changes ... It transforms ... It becomes .... a sluggish web browser.

Yes, Webtop - the platform which makes the magic happen - provides a full-screen (or windowed) version of Mozilla Firefox.

A small collection of shortcut icons adorn a floating dock at the bottom of the screen, you can add your own - but only shortcuts to web sites. There is no adding (say) Wyse PocketCloud or Angry Birds.

A replica of the Atrix screen floats in a window of its own, and is pretty much 1:1. This window can be re-oriented or moved about but the major offering it provides is that you can interact with it as if you were using the phone directly.

 


 

In practice, this takes some getting used to. You don't right-click to add or remove a shortcut on the phone screen, for instance, as you would ordinarily feel inclined to on a laptop. Instead, you press the mouse for an extended period just as if you were pressing your finger on screen. Similarly, you "swipe" the mouse left and right to swipe through Android's multi-screens.

You can most certainly run any app installed on your phone ... but apart from Firefox, they run inside the diminutive mimicked phone window.

Apparently, I have read, it is possible to make apps run full-screen within Webtop if they are compiled for the ARM processor. Nevertheless, in practice, it is only Firefox out-of-the-box which works. Although icons are supplied to open Messaging, Contacts and other essential apps these programs merely load up within the phone display window. Frankly, that's more than a bit rubbish.

Perhaps the reason Motorola haven't made Webtop more powerful is that it runs like taffy. The theoretically powerful Atrix slows right down in Webtop mode with web browsing being more laborious than it ought to be. Avoid Flash-laden sites and it fares better but it certainly doesn't rival itself in regular phone mode, undocked.

As it stands, the Atrix is conceptually magnificent but in practice is just a phone. Or, perhaps, if you live totally in the cloud you might find it serves admirably as a ChromeBook stand-in because, like the ChromeBook, the only thing Webtop really does is web browsing.

Nevertheless, while my hope has so far been in vain I haven't lost heart. Smart Android hackers online are at work to make Webtop more useful and less restrictive. Ultimately, I long for a full Ubuntu (or other) distro right there on my phone. Now that would be magnificent!

Of course, these efforts are so far experimental and predominantly require rooting the device.

Motorola has announced they will unlock the bootloader and a,so that they will provide an upgrade from the current Froyo operating system to Gingerbread (aka from Android 2.2 to 2.3) but without rooting I - and you - are subject to the whim of carriers coming onboard and making the updated software available.

I'm not giving up hope. I have way too many gadgets I excitedly picked up as a mad early-adopter which subsequently went the way of the Dodo but not this time. I am counting on you, Motorola - and if not Motorola, the great crowd of mobile Linux experts who share my faith, passion and dream.

 


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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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