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Motorola Atrix: Another Bell Tolls for the Notebook Market

One of the most important devices shown at last week's Consumer Electronics Show was the Motorola Atrix, a smartphone that slides into a bigger shell and becomes a full-fledged laptop. While pretty much one-of-a-kind right now, the Atrix shows how smartphones are growing as powerful as laptops -- and as a result how they'll eventually eat that market, too.

Smartphones are already essentially laptops
On its own, the Atrix is a typical touchscreen-based Google (GOOG) Android phone. The big hook here is the laptop shell. As The New York Times David Pogue says:

[T]he twist is the accompanying laptop. It's beautiful - like a black MacBook Air - incredibly sleek, thin and light (2.4 pounds). But it has no processor, storage or memory of its own. Instead, you snap the phone into the laptop. You don't have to shut anything down or enter any special mode. It's like putting the brain into Frankenstein's monster. Suddenly, whatever was on the phone's screen now fills the laptop's screen, giving you much more real estate, plus a trackpad and full keyboard. You can attach an external hard drive and mouse, if you like. The phone provides the processor, memory, Internet connection and, of course, all your photos, videos, music and files.

The docking system idea isn't a new one. Nearly two decades ago Ergo released the Moby Brick (no, seriously), a portable computer with a 486 processor. The Moby Brick could be plugged into a standing dock that turned it into a standard desktop PC.

While the now-obscure Moby Brick failed in the marketplace (its $6000 retail price didn't help), modern devices like the Atrix are far more likely to succeed. Smartphones are not only already popular, they're extremely powerful. For instance, the Atrix is expected to launch with a dual-core NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor, 16 GB of storage, and 4G speeds. The phone is powerful enough to function as a laptop, particularly for the average consumer's needs.

Traditional computers are following the mobile lead
The line between smartphones and traditional computers has been getting awfully blurry, particularly over the past year:

Smartphone and computer manufacturers coexist just fine at the moment, but a clash is inevitable. As apps become more commonplace, consumers are soon going to realize that they're buying the same apps twice -- once for their phones and once for their laptops. For instance, Apple now has its word processing software Pages available for both the iPad and the Mac, but the differences between the two are negligible -- aside, that is, from the more expensive asking price for the Mac version.

As Pogue puts it, "[the Atrix] is a very clever idea. Now you don't need two copies of everything."

Things will get even blurrier as computer manufacturers aggressively share their technology across home, portable, and mobile phone units. Microsoft (MSFT) is expected to add its XBox 360 Kinect motion software to tablets, laptops, and home PCs, and, according to BNET's Erik Sherman, Apple may well drop the Mac brand altogether in light of the iPad's runaway success.

As devices like Atrix become more commonplace, consumers will begin to see their smartphones as the portable computers they truly are. Software companies, in turn, will need to support software on both big screens and small. And computer makers may just have to brace themselves for the loss in laptop and home PC sales.

Photo courtesy of Motorola