[FoRK] Atrix / Xoom Details
sdw at lig.net
Sun Mar 13 18:43:02 PDT 2011
Cool. Needs work, but seems like the hard parts are done.
Hands-on: Motorola Atrix's Ubuntu-powered WebTop experience
By Ryan Paul | Last updated 42 minutes ago
Motorola's Atrix 4G smartphone was one of the most promising products unveiled at CES earlier this year. The innovative handset can
plug into a netbook shell accessory, offering a desktop-like computing experience. The netbook shell contains no processor, memory,
network hardware, or internal storage—it relies entirely on the docked phone to provide those essentials.
Motorola envisions a future in which smartphones are at the heart of the connected lifestyle, adapting and integrating with
peripherals to meet the user's computing needs. The Atrix is a significant first step in that direction. Although the underlying
concept is extremely intriguing, the implementation still leaves a lot to be desired.
We put the Atrix hardware through its paces earlier this month in our review of the handset and the docking accessories. In this
follow-up, we will take a close look at the Atrix's software, albeit without screenshots, as taking screenies in the desktop
environment is impossible without rooting the device.
When the user plugs the Atrix into the netbook accessory docking connector, it will start up the embedded WebTop software
environment. The WebTop platform is based on the Ubuntu Linux distribution. The user interface consists of the Firefox Web browser,
a dock based on the Avant Window Navigator, and a handful of components adapted from the GNOME desktop environment. It has custom
theming that prominently features black gradients.
The Web browser
As the name implies, the WebTop environment is principally intended for accessing Web content and applications. It comes with a
conventional desktop version of Firefox 3.6 that works exactly as you would expect. The WebTop also comes bundled with Prism, a
Mozilla Labs technology that allows Web applications to run in their own individual windows on the desktop as separate processes
outside of the browser.
applications like Google Maps.
The browser comes fully equipped with Adobe's Flash plug-in for rendering rich media, but Flash performance proved to be
exceptionally poor in the WebTop environment. Flash animations slowed down page scrolling speed to an extent that seriously
undermined the usefulness of the browser. The problem was easily remedied, however, by installing the Flashblock extension.
One of the most significant features of the WebTop environment is the MobileView—a direct on-screen interface to the Android
software environment on the Atrix handset. It allows you to use the netbook shell's touchpad and keyboard to interact with your
phone through a floating window in the WebTop environment.
When it first starts, you see your home screen exactly as it appears on the handset. You can click shortcuts, launch software from
the application drawer, and interact with it exactly as you would normally. The window itself is resizable, allowing you to stretch
the phone environment to whatever size is most comfortable.
A toolbar along the bottom of the window has clickable icons that represent Android's standard menu, home, back, and search icons.
There is also an icon for toggling the window between landscape and portrait orientation and one for expanding it to full-screen
mode. The top of the window displays a bar of tabs representing the applications that are running on the phone. The tabs serve as a
task switcher that integrates with Android's internal multitasking capabilities.
The value of the MobileView is that it provides full access to your Android applications through the netbook shell, but the
experience is still fundamentally phone-like. Android's kinetic scrolling, for example, was not particularly pleasant to use on the
netbook shell's mediocre trackpad.
To evaluate the performance of the MobileView interface, I tested it with the popular Glow Hockey game. The game performed just as
well through the MobileView as it does on the handset. The animations didn't stutter and the particle effects looked exactly as
expected, even when I increased the size of the window. There is, however, a small amount of input latency. The MobileView appears
to lag slightly in relaying mouse activity to the Android software as touch events. The lag is so subtle that I only noticed it
while testing the game—it largely won't impact regular usage.
The WebTop environment doesn't offer a whole lot of integration yet with the underlying phone software stack, but there are a few
clever features that hint at broader integration potential. For example, a black panel that runs along the top of the screen in the
WebTop environment will display icons representing the current items in the Android notification panel. When I get a new direct
message on Twitter, it will show a Twitter icon in the WebTop panel that I can click to launch the social networking application in
the MobileView phone environment.
Filesystem and multimedia
Another point of integration is the filesystem. The WebTop comes with GNOME's Nautilus file manager, which you can use to browse the
phone's internal storage or microSD card. This is especially great for a getting a bigger view of photos that you captured with the
phone's camera. You can double-click the photo jpeg files to load them into the browser.
Certain kinds of files will automatically open in Android applications in the MobileView when you double-click them in the WebTop
file manager. For example, if you download a Microsoft Word (.docx) file through Firefox and double-click it in the file manager, it
will open in QuickOffice in the Android environment and be fully editable through the MobileView.
Another useful application that comes bundled with the WebTop environment is the Entertainment Center, a full-screen multimedia
application in the same vein as Front Row. It has a simple keyboard-controlled user interface for navigating and playing multimedia
content from the phone's internal storage. Annoyingly, the phone's DLNA features don't appear to be accessible through the
Entertainment Center interface.
The WebTop environment is heavily locked down and designed to block users from running arbitrary software. The TOMOYO Linux
Mandatory Access Control framework appears to be one of the security measures in use.
Although there are a lot of conventional GNOME applications hidden away on the filesystem, the security restrictions of the WebTop
environment only allow the end user to open the small handful of applications that are presented through the panels. Similarly, the
Nautilus file manager is barred from navigating up the filesystem hierarchy to areas outside of the sandboxed paths with user files.
I made a few trivial attempts to circumvent these lockdown mechanisms (I was trying to get the GNOME screenshot tool to run), but
wasn't particularly successful. I discovered that you can see other parts of the filesystem by using the save dialog in Firefox or
putting a "file:///" URL into the browser. Using that method, I was able to copy a launcher from "/usr/share/applications" into the
regular storage area. When I tried to execute the launcher through Nautilus, however, I got a permission error.
Users who want to customize the WebTop environment and run other software will have to resort to rooting. The procedure involves
rooting the Atrix handset itself and then using ADB to unlock root access for the WebTop environment. The modding community has
taken to affectionately describing the maneuver as "double-rooting." After the WebTop environment is rooted, you can run a terminal
and use some of the other software that is included. It's worth noting, however, that you still can't just install arbitrary
applications—software has to be compiled for ARM in order to run in the environment.
The WebTop interface has a panel at the top and a dock at the bottom. The left-hand side of the dock has launchers for the
MobileView and several core Android components that are accessed through the MobileView. The right-hand side of the dock has the
launcher for the browser and other websites.
You can click the plus button on the right-hand side to add launchers for specific websites—it lets you choose whether you want the
site to open in a Prism window or as a new tab in the browser. The dock is kind of simplistic, but it's useful if you want to have a
website like Google Docs open in its own window.
On the left-hand side of the dock there is a button that launches the window switcher. It shows thumbnails of all the windows and
lets you select which one to bring to the front. A similar interface is associated with the alt-tab keyboard shortcut.
As I stated earlier, the left side of the panel at the top of the screen houses the notification area. The right side of the panel
is dedicated to various status indicators and menus. You can control the network, GPS, and Bluetooth settings, see the battery
status, or adjust the volume.
One of the most impressive characteristics of the WebTop environment is its support for persistence. When you unplug the phone from
the dock, the state of the whole environment will be preserved. When you start the WebTop environment back up later, it will be in
exactly the same condition as when you left. All of your windows and tabs will remain open and will remember their positions.
This worked pretty well, but it wasn't entirely flawless. On two occasions during my tests of the device, it seemed to reset instead
of restoring the previous state. I wasn't able to reproduce the issue consistently, however.
An application on the Android side will allow you to look at the tabs that you had open in your last WebTop session, making it easy
to pick up where you left off without having to plug the phone back into the dock.
The concept of a netbook-like accessory for smartphones isn't exactly new. We have seen a handful of similar products in the past,
including the ill-fated Palm Folio and the Redfly mobile companion devices. Motorola's implementation is pretty compelling, though
still quite limited.
It needs more applications and better phone integration in the WebTop environment. At present, the lack of software selection is
really what limits the netbook shell accessory from being competitive with a conventional netbook. The mediocre browser performance
and low quality of the keyboard and trackpad on the shell itself are also problematic.
Despite the general lack of mainstream usefulness and the weaknesses in the user experience, the Atrix WebTop platform seems to have
a lot of potential. There's a lot of real innovation going on in this product and so much room for great improvements that it's hard
to not be excited about the possibilities. If Motorola can bring more courage and imagination to the project, it could deliver a
great computing experience across multiple form factors.
On 3/8/11 9:57 PM, Stephen Williams wrote:
> More details:
> Nothing runs on the dock, it is a dumb keyboard/mouse pad (PC-like unfortunately, I commented that it should be Mac-level), LCD,
> and battery/charger. (I thought that was obvious, but apparently some are confused by the auto mode switch.) The browser runs on
> the phone, however it probably has a different mode or even perhaps a different executable that runs in dock mode. There is a
> whole more or less netbook looking desktop paradigm. As soon as you unplug the phone, it shoes a typical phone desktop (MotoBlur I
> think, it was mentioned a number of times).
> Firefox looked pretty much normal, with tabs and everything. It was a little sluggish, but not bad. Overall, extremely impressive.
> The other interesting thing is that the Xoom is officially (always I think) rootable: You are welcome to toggle a mode where you
> can replace the installation, then change it back later when you want. More or less specifically for development. My assumption is
> that the phone companies are the ones pushing hard against rooting phones and they have less of an argument with non-phone tablets.
> On 3/8/11 4:56 PM, Stephen Williams wrote:
>> Just played with the Motorola Mobility Atrix. Full screen Firefox on the "dock", loaded TiddlyWiki and TiddlyMath, downloaded a
>> local copy (which defaults to /mnt/sdcart/Downloads (perfect)), browsed, edited, saved, and reloaded. Presto, MathML, mini-Latex,
>> graph drawing, notes, Wiki, etc. on a pocket phone!
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