Motorola Atrix 4G Leads ATandT Android Push vs. Verizon

AT&T is embracing Android as Verizon Wireless did before it; the move is likely to ease the pain of any iPhone sales lost to Verizon starting next week. The mobile platform pendulum swings.

As word leaked online that Verizon Wireless would be offering Apple's iPhone early this year, AT&T-the exclusive iPhone carrier in the United States since its release-remained largely silent.

AT&T's reticence to pump Android vanished at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show.

Jeff Bradley, senior vice president of devices for AT&T's wireless business, appeared on stage with Motorola Mobility CEO Sanjay Jha to unveil the Motorola Atrix 4G, an Android handset powered by a dual-core processor.

That Android 2.2 handset will launch March 6 for $199.99 with a two-year contract. Customers may pay $499 to pair the Atrix 4G with the Motorola Laptop Dock, which will allow consumers to flash their Atrix 4G content on a larger monitor via Motorola's Linux-based Webtop application.

AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega just told the Wall Street Journal Atrix 4G will carry the torch for the 12 or so Android phones the company will roll out this year, including the HTC Inspire 4G and Samsung Infuse 4G, both of which impressed eWEEK in limited testing at CES.

If AT&T can deliver on its promises, it would certainly put the carrier on more even footing with Verizon Wireless, whose flagship Droid portfolio catapulted Android to the smartphone platform summit in the U.S.

AT&T's newfound love for Android is no coincidence. Bradley told the Journal AT&T wanted to take a "wait and see" approach to "version one of a brand-new platform," but that doesn't carry a lot of weight, considering Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile embraced Android early.

The media tend to believe that AT&T embraced Android to counter the arrival of the iPhone on Verizon's CMDA (Code Division Multiple Access) network, a move analysts expect will result in Apple shipping an additional 10 million to 20 million iPhones this year.

Indeed, Verizon on Feb. 3 halted taking preorders for the device, citing high demand. Analysts believe Verizon presold 100,000 units.

But AT&T's fiscal results may have provided a precursor to the impact of the Verizon iPhone when the company revealed that it inked just 400,000 new customers to wireless contracts in the last three months of 2010, the lowest quarterly number in the last five years.

It's possible customers eyeing the iPhone wanted to purchase it on Verizon's leading wireless network.

Whatever the case, the golden goose is no longer laying its eggs only for AT&T, which is a big reason the carrier is giving Android such a hearty hug this year. Can Android help AT&T curb its losses?

EWEEK briefly tested the Atrix 4G at CES; the device appears well-positioned to compete with the iPhone on AT&T, Verizon or anywhere else.

Consider that when Verizon spurned the iPhone a few years back, it turned to Android and launched a very successful Droid line.

AT&T watched Android largely from afar, offering a few token handsets (Motorola Backflip, anyone?) as it shipped tens of millions of iPhones to Apple-loving consumers on an exclusive basis.

Now that Verizon has brokered a deal to sell the iPhone 4, AT&T thinks Android is looking rosier. Will Verizon deemphasize its Droid marketing in favor of the iPhone? The company has said no, but we'll see.

What we've learned from all of this is that the mobile-platform pendulum is swinging between Verizon and AT&T, both of whom seek balance to compete.