Motorola Atrix 4G: How Much is Ubiquitous Connectivity, Convergence, and Portability Worth to You?

With AT&T having unveiled the pricing for both the Atrix 4G and the accompanying laptop dock, there has been a lot of chatter on the Internet about the high cost of the laptop dock solution, making what many saw as a revolutionary, mobile-changing accessory device at CES seem not as accessible to many consumers due to the high price tag.

High Laptop Dock Pricing Requires a Data Tethering Plan
AT&T is offering the Atrix 4G–the HSPA+-enabled Android smartphone itself–for $200 on a two-year agreement. With a laptop dock at the time of purchase and contract agreement, the complete package will retail for $500. However, if users only purchased the smartphone first, and later come back for the laptop dock, the companion accessory itself will be an additional $500 on top of whatever you paid for the smartphone.

What’s even more ridiculous is that despite the fact that mobile computing power, when docked to the laptop dock, will be coming from the Tegra 2-enabled Atrix 4G as the laptop dock itself doesn’t have its own OS or processor–it’s just a screen, keyboard, dock, and extended battery–AT&T will be forcing users to purchase the regular 2 GB metered data plan and also the tethering plan for an additional 2 GB per month and $25 in subscription cost. It’s not like the laptop dock is sharing the mobile broadband connection from the phone on its own OS, CPU, and hardware–it is using the mobile broadband connection, CPU, and OS of the phone and just extends the phone’s functionality, much like connecting a Bluetooth keyboard to your existing home PC or laptop.

The Laptop Dock Costs More Than a Netbook for Less Parts
Moreover, at $300 for the laptop dock–if purchased as part of the $500 package along with the Atrix 4G ($200 cost) and two-year contract–or at $500 as a standalone purchase, the Atrix 4G’s laptop dock pricing is at or above the pricing for a netbook. This has many questioning the true utility of the laptop dock as it’s just a shell of a netbook without the additional components, such as added memory, HDD, Atom or Fusion CPU/APU, Windows 7 licensing fees, and other costs that are pertinent to an HP or Dell selling a loaded netbook. As it stands, the laptop dock has a few connectivity ports, a docking port for the phone, a clamshell case along with a larger display and full-sized keyboard, and a battery that will power the laptop dock and smartphone for a total use time of 8 hours. Is the minimum hardware package itself on the laptop dock worth the price of a netbook?

Convergence as an Implicit Cost
Looking at just the sheer number and cost schedule alone doesn’t paint a full picture. Sure, the cost itself may limit the accessibility of what many saw as a game-changing companion accessory to a smartphone to the enterprise space, but its utility as a consumer-friendly smartbook that provides instant-on functionality, cohesive data between the smartphone and notebook/netbook form factor that would eliminate the need for data synchronization, and also ubiquitous Internet connectivity without searching for WiFi access points though you may want to watch your metered data use! With AT&T’s pricing for the accessory, it seems that the carrier is placing a lot of value on convergence–the ability to not have to carry around a netbook and a smartphone. If that is valuable to you, AT&T is hoping the perceived value of a converged, single solution with ubiquitous Internet connection will be worth at least $500 to you.

Will Consumers Expect Too Much and Get Confused?
However, for a lot of consumer users in a down economy, the price may be too much for a number of reasons. First, the device, despite having benefits of convergence, costs more than a netbook and delivers less performance theoretically as you are working with a smartphone OS rather than a desktop OS.

Second, the form factor may actually serve to confuse people than to empower users. Despite its advertised benefits and geekiness, when users use the Atrix in laptop dock mode, they expect laptop performance, not smartphone or smartbook performance. That means that users will be able to use Excel and Word, connect external hard drives and printers, load Skype and do video conferencing, and other features that they won’t normally expect on a smartphone. When users see a laptop, they expect they device to perform like a desktop, and in particular like their Windows machine at home or at work, and the Atrix 4G with its laptop dock may not be able to change this perception and deliver the expected performance.

However, despite these consumer expectations, the device’s shortcomings, and its high price tag by AT&T, the Atrix 4G with its laptop dock is still a promising device. It’s definitely a few years too late as Palm had created a similar companion device that connected via Bluetooth to Palm OS smartphones called the Foleo, but Palm had scrapped that device prior to launch.

I had wished that AT&T would realize the value and price the Atrix 4G’s laptop dock at an affordable price so that the device can attract a larger audience to its network in lieu of the iPhone launching on Verizon. At $200-$250, the laptop dock may be justifiable given that the iPad’s CruxCase 360 delivers less in value and hardware and is already priced at $150 for a similar-ish concept.

As such, the Atrix 4G may be a niche or enterprise-level device. For the business user who needs to travel light and may not want to deal with tethering with two devices, the Atrix and laptop dock may be the best solution. With re-sizable browser windows, multiple tabs and browser windows supported, the ability to view your phone’s content on a larger portable display, and access to a full-size keyboard, enterprise users may find a lot to like, but the device isn’t still perfect as it doesn’t run crucial Windows apps–if your business depends on those programs–and will be limited to what is available through Android Market as AT&T has historically blocked sideloading apps, or the ability to install apps not obtained through Android Market.

Given that Android Honeycomb tablets will be launching soon, what will stop consumers from exploring something like a LePad with the U1 Hybrid dock, but without the Intel Core i5 processor in the dock, for a similar experience? Perhaps users can even attach a Bluetooth keyboard to their Android tablet as the tablet already has a large screen, negating the display portion of the Atrix’s laptop dock and come with an Atrix 4G laptop dock competitor, though not packages as elegantly. Again, it is trade-offs and opportunity costs. For the cost benefit analysis, consumers will definitely feel cheated, especially at the $500 price point to get the laptop dock after they had purchased a $200 smartphone and be tied to a contract.