Webtop, We Hardly Knew Ye

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Motorola's Atrix phone and laptop dock are demoed at Germany's CeBIT computer show in February 2011

The most intriguing product announced at CES 2011 was Motorola’s Atrix, a 4G Android smartphone with an optional laptop dock. The dock looked and worked like a thin laptop with an 11.6″ screen, but didn’t have its own processor or storage. Instead, you stuck the phone in a slot behind the display, and it provided the brains–letting you run Android apps on a (relatively) large screen with a (reasonably) comfy QWERTY keyboard. Motorola called the software that made this possible Webtop.

I liked the idea. In fact, I had predicted something very much like it back in March 2009, in a blog post where I called it a dumb clamshell (and referenced Palm’s ill-fated Foleo, an early pass at the concept).

But when the Atrix and its Webtop laptop dock shipped, Motorola charged $500 for the dock–the same price you might pay for a basic Windows notebook. Worse, the software was buggy and sluggish. Even when Motorola kept with Webtop and cut the price, Webtop was more appealing in theory than reality.

So I wasn’t shocked to learn, via CNET’s Roger Cheng, that Motorola, now part of Google, is giving up on the concept.

Still, I think that the notion of using a largish screen and a laptop-style keyboard with a phone (and the phone’s data connection) makes sense. It’s just that:

  • It ought to be cheaper;
  • It shouldn’t be proprietary to one company’s phones;
  • It should be done wirelessly;
  • It needs to be really, really fast, smooth and reliable.

I’m not heartbroken by the end of Motorola’s Webtop dream: Even if I’d bought one of the Moto phones in question, I wouldn’t have sprung for the laptop dock. But I’d like to see someone take another shot. Maybe it’s a possible future direction for Google’s own Chrome OS?