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Motorola sets the tone at CES with launch of powerful mobile hardware

A small group of journalists met with the top boss at Motorola on Wednesday to take a look at what the company claims is the most powerful smart phone on Earth.

Such claims are nothing new at the International Consumer Electronics Show, which kicks off in earnest on Thursday. And with dual one-gigahertz processors, the Motorola Atrix is certainly no slouch.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the new phone is its hallmark accessory, a laptop-like docking port that acts as a large keyboard and screen when the phone is plugged in. The dock contains no processors or memory, everything is stored on the phone. In effect, Motorola's newest phone is designed to compete not only with other smart phones, but with tablets and even laptop computers.

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"It is, I think, a paradigm shift," said, Sanjay Jha, Motorola CEO. "This is a computer that fits in your pocket."

At the technology industry's largest annual event, there's a striking trend toward convergence in the mobile space. Last year, the rise of tablets (especially Apple's iPad), spurred a similar wave of convergence in categories such as netbooks and electronic book-readers. This year, it appears the line between high-powered phones and tablets is also blurring.

The transition is aided by the rise of Google's Android operating system. At this year's CES, a large number of new tablet offerings run on Android, including a variety of models from manufacturers such as Samsung (Motorola is also expected to release Android-powered tablets in the near future). The slew of offerings effectively fill the gap between 4-inch phone screen and the 11-inch iPad. Research In Motion's upcoming PlayBook tablet, for example, has a 7-inch screen.

Unlike last year, when companies such as HP and Microsoft showcased tablet hardware and software at CES but ultimately were overshadowed by the iPad, this year's manufacturers have the added advantage of more mobile-specific content. One of the groups invited to an exclusive press-only CES event on Wednesday, the Open Mobile Video Coalition, represents more than 900 U.S. broadcasters looking to migrate their content onto mobile devices (representatives of at least two other such groups are also in Las Vegas for the conference). A number of on-line video-streaming services are also pushing mobile-specific offerings.

Globe @ CES

The technology industry also has a better idea of what consumers are using new mobile devices for than they did this time last year. A new report by Forrester predicts U.S. consumers will buy twice as many laptops this year compared to 2010. More importantly, the report found tablet owners are upgrading their devices much more quickly than previously thought.

"In other words, we think a significant number of first-generation iPad buyers will buy iPad 2 when it comes out this year - many first-gen iPads will end up entertaining the kids in the back of the car while Mom and Dad get the shiny new ... model," said Forester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps.

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The growing desire for mobile devices that pack the same computing punch full-fledged desktops had just a couple of years ago is welcome news for the tech industry. Whether Motorola's attempt to compete with both smart phones and tablets succeeds is still uncertain. But should the company manage to make its product cross the boundary between smart phones, tablets and laptops, the market opportunity is lucrative.

Indeed, when company CEO Mr. Jha talked about possible pricing for the new phone-dock combination device, he mentioned as a comparison Apple's Macbook Air - a portable computer that retails for upwards of $1000.

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