Are Smartbooks the New Netbooks?
When blogger Tony Chung takes his Lenovo IdeaPad S10 to The Coffee Bean in San Diego, his small table gets cluttered quickly. Beside his iced coffee and 10-inch netbook sits a Windows Mobile smart phone, which he tethers for 3G mobile broadband access (he says he can’t rely on Wi-Fi). An AC adapter is strung across the table to ensure his netbook, which only gets about two and a half hours of battery life, doesn’t die mid-tweet. If you ask Freescale, Nvidia, and Qualcomm, what Tony really needs is a smartbook, a new category of notebook set to arrive by the holidays. A portmanteau of the words smart phone and netbook, smartbooks promise to deliver features typically found in smart phones—always-on 3G connectivity and all-day battery life—in a netbook-looking device that has a larger screen and the comfort of a full keyboard. “We have seen the success of smart phones, where consumers love the connectivity, the mobility, the instant-on, and long battery life,” said Luis Pineda, senior vice president of marketing and product management for Qualcomm CDMA Technologies. “Netbooks haven’t succeeded on all those points. Our smartbooks can.” Similar Looks, Different Guts On the surface, smartbooks will look a lot like netbooks. While designs and final form factors will be up to the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), those jump-starting the category expect them to be clamshell devices with screen sizes ranging from 7 to 10 inches, incorporating close-to-full–sized QWERTY keyboards and some form of mouse input. What makes a smartbook different from the netbooks being sold by the millions? Its internal organs. Instead of x86 processors from AMD or Intel, smartbooks are powered by ARM processor technology. Found in approximately 90 percent of smart phones, an ARM core will be paired with other technology (including communications and graphics chips) from the likes of Freescale, Nvidia, and Qualcomm. Each of the above companies alter the chip design to create unique capabilities that are paired with the original ARM architecture. Freescale smartbooks will be powered by its i.MX515 processor, Nvidia’s by its Tegra platform, and Qualcomm by its Snapdragon platform. All of these chips, because of their low-powered ARM cores, will have battery runtimes comparable to smart phones: 8 to 12 hours of endurance with a three-cell battery. Since this processor technology doesn’t require cooling mechanisms, these chips also enable thinner and lighter designs than netbooks. “Our chip partners and companies all have a broad range of products, and can add to our architecture what they want,” said Jeff Chu, ARM’s mobile computing manager. “They can tailor the device toward gaming or video or connectivity. Each of them can put in a unique set of features to round out their chip.” Chu argues that because of this customization, consumers will see devices that are more differentiated than netbooks, which generally share the same memory, operating system, and processor. Windows? Fuggetaboutit! That differentiation in operating system is a major hurdle facing smartbooks. Because ARM processors are not able to run Microsoft’s OS, these devices will not support Windows, including the dated, but very popular Windows XP or Windows 7. Instead, smartbook chip makers are looking to such alternatives as Google Android, Intel’s Moblin, and Microsoft’s Windows CE. Both Android and Moblin are based on Linux.
“In the short term, during the next couple of quarters, Windows CE is the best available platform,” said Michael Rayfield, general manager of mobile business at Nvidia. Given that more than 90 percent of netbook sales are devices that run Windows XP, Nvidia’s Tegra smartbooks—and the others that lack full Windows support—could be a tough sell. “Netbooks were originally going to liberate us from the tyranny of Windows and open the gates for Linux, but we all saw how that shaped up,” said Michael Gartenberg, vice president of strategy and analysis at Interpret. “A full-featured Microsoft OS is the super-set right now, providing no compromises, which most consumers want when interacting with a laptop-looking device.” On the other hand, because smartbooks are keenly focused on getting consumers online, the OS may not be as relevant. “Most of the activity centers around e-mail, Facebook, YouTube and other Web-based applications,” argued Bob Morris, ARM’s director of mobile computing. “As consumers increasingly demand a more mobile computing experience, are they really going to care that these devices are running Linux so long as the OS is easy to use?” If anyone can counter the marquee draw that Windows has, it’s Google’s new Chrome operating system, which will emphasize Web-based applications and target netbooks and smartbooks when it launches during the second half of next year. “Android and Chrome could be the saving grace [of smartbooks],” said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies. Necessary 3G Ingredient Beyond catching the eye of Google and others, smartbooks have caught the attention of telecom partners that can provide the 3G connection smartbooks were built to offer. “There’s new interest in the connected marketplace, and we like this hybrid category and the names that are involved here,” said Michael Stice, vice president of emerging devices for AT&T’s mobility and consumer markets division. For AT&T, the more devices that are connecting to its network, the better. But all the major carriers recognize that consumers will not be willing to fork over more than one $60-per-month data fee. “We are considering a service plan and rate that could include a number of devices to give customers a choice of payment,” Stice added. We think [3G payment options] will be the element that busts this category open.” There are other connectivity options. For instance, Sprint and Verizon Wireless sell the MiFi 2200 Intelligent Mobile Hotspot, a personal hotspot that rebroadcasts a 3G connection as a Wi-Fi signal for multiple devices. But if the point of smartbooks is always-on connectivity, the carriers will have to make good on these so-called family data plans in order for the category to gain traction, and quickly. Skittish Manufacturers Although the carriers and processor and software makers all seem gung-ho about the potential of smartbooks, the most important piece of the puzzle is getting device makers to produce them. At press time, no first-tier notebook manufacturer had announced a smartbook for 2009. In fact, ASUS CEO Jerry Shen shelved its initiative in August, saying, “I don’t see a clear market for smartbooks.” For Sony’s Mike Abary, senior vice president of the company’s information technology products division, there’s reason to be skeptical. “If it’s in a clamshell form factor, there is an expectation that this device is a notebook,” Abary said. “I don’t care if it’s called a smartbook. The consumer will expect the same experience they get on a netbook or notebook. If you don’t duplicate the same experience on smartbooks, then it won’t sell.” Intrepret’s Gartenberg agrees. “The smartbook falls into no man’s land—between laptop, netbook, and high-end smart phone,” he said. “It’s the ultimate tweener device, and that has been rejected by consumers time and time again.” But not everyone thinks smartbooks are a dumb idea. “There is a bifurcation of netbooks versus smartbooks happening,” argued Creative Strategies’ Bajarin. “Devices that have a cellular plan and are tolerably priced will be able to do things that consumers weren’t able to do before with netbooks.” Either way, connectivity-craving individuals such as Tony will be the ones who decide if smartbooks can enhance the mobile computing experience.