Motorola Atrix & Display+Keyboard Dock: Its Place in the History of Mobile Keyboards

There are some ideas that are simply too good to fail even though they do time after time for one reason or another. One of these failed great ideas is a mobile device that can also provide a near desktop computing experience when needed.

ZDNet’s James Kendricks excellent and detailed review of the Android powered Motorola Atrix 4G reminded me of the history of mobile computing with attached physical QWERTY keyboards.

Motorola Atrix 4G with laptop dock: first impressions

Motorola’s Atrix is an Android OS 2.2 powered smartphone that works with AT&T’s 4G wireless data network and has an optional dock that gives it a full-sized keyboard and larger display.

We’ve seen this attempted in recent years with other mobile platforms. Celio’s Redfly gave Windows Phone smartphone users the option to attach a near-full-size keyboard and 7-inch display via USB. Unfortunately, I found that it didn’t work with many of my Windows Mobile phones and was a bit unstable on the one model it worked with. It also started with an extremely high starting price ($499) that later dropped ($199). However, by then, Microsoft changed their model (Windows Phone) which is incompatible with the Redfly. Despite the problems I ran into with the Redfly, I know several people who got great value from it and took it with them nearly everywhere. The Redfly was a niche success in the Windows Mobile market and later expanded to support BlackBerry phones.

The other product in recent memory never actually launched. This was Palm’s Foleo companion that was designed as a netbook-like device that had some onboard intelligence and obtained its communications ability by tethering to a Palm Treo. Unfortunatley, it was floated as a product concept just as the netbook phenomenon was getting into high gear. The Foleo’s high price ($499) and symbiotic requirement may have doomed it before it got started.

That brings me back to my trip down mobile keyboard memory lane. I assembled a few of my personal museum pieces to illustrate the mobile keyboard’s history. The Radio Shack TRS-80 Model-100 (upper right) launched in 1983 (28 years ago!) and had what I still believe is the best mobile keyboard ever developed. It even had a 300 baud modem and could be programmed using its embedded BASIC interpreter. My recollection is that the Model-100’s software was the last project for which Microsoft’s Bill Gates played the role of lead developer. The Model-100 itself was a niche success in my opinion although it too eventually disappeared.

The NEC MobilePro 750 in the upper left ranks high in my mobile keyboard list too. It had one of the first color LCD screens in Windows CE Handheld PC device. The screen’s contrast was weak. But, the easy portability more than made up for that. It was small enough to throw in nearly any bag or briefcase. You didn’t need a special notebook case to carry it around.

The keyboard in the middle is the HP Jornada keyboard designed for use with HP’s great Jornada Handheld PCs. It too was a wonderful keyboard. You can see that it features full separate numeric and function key rows. In the bottom left corner you can see the venerable Apple Newton keyboard. It seemed like an odd admission that the Newton’s handwriting recognition was not quite up to snuff. On the other hand, it may also demonstrate that no matter how good on screen input is (and the Newton’s was actually quite good even by today’s standards), a physical keyboard is still a desirable option.

Finally, in the bottom right corner you can see my iPhone 4 and the Apple Wireless Keyboard (Bluetooth). I use this keyboard with both the iPhone 4 and the iPad. I’ve taken several trips with just this trio (iPhone 4, iPad and keyboard).

This brings us back to the Motorola Atrix. The Atrix costs $200 with a 2-year contract. Its dock which provides a keyboard and display is quite expensive at $499.99. That alone may doom this conceptually good product to failure. After all, you could go to Verizon and get a Palm Pre with free tethering, a WiFi only iPad 2, and Apple Keyboard for nearly the same price as the Atrix and its dock.