It’s been almost a year since chip-maker Qualcomm coined the term “smartbook” to describe a new kind of device that would be a cross between a smartphone and a netbook. Like smartphones, these so-called smartbooks would have low power ARM-based processors, long battery life, and always-connected access to the internet through 3G wireless networks. But they’d have reasonably large screens and keyboards, like netbooks.
Flash forward nearly 12 months, and you still can’t walk into a store and buy a smartbook. HP, Lenovo, and a few other companies have promised to bring devices matching Qualcomm’s description to market. But so far there’s just nothing on the shelves.
ARM spokesperson Ian Drew says the problem isn’t with the hardware — it’s largely software. First, he suggests that part of the appeal of a Smartbook is that it’s supposed to be able to access the full web experience — including Adobe Flash content. But Adobe still hasn’t officially released the long-promised version of Flash Player 10.1 optimized for Google Android and ARM-powered devices.
Second, Apple sparked interest in the tablet field with the successful launch of the iPad. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for ARM, which licenses its designs to the chip-makers building processors that power most of the me-too tablets expected to come out in the next few months.
Finally, Drew says that ARM-based smartbooks suffer a bit because they can’t run Windows, which is only designed to run on x86 processors. While some of the earliest netbooks, including the Asus Eee PC 701 and OLPC XO Laptop ran Linux, today more than 90 percent of the netbooks on the market ship with Windows.
While I certainly think a Google Android or Linux smartbook could prove successful, smartbook makers and wireless carriers will have an uphill battle trying to convince users that a device that looks almost exactly like a notebook operates more like a smartphone and can’t run Microsoft Office or other desktop software. That’s a problem Apple managed to avoid by introducing a tablet that looks a lot more like an iPod touch than a MacBook Pro.
While I suspect we’ll see smartbooks from HP and Lenovo hit the streets soon, it’s anybody’s guess whether they’ll fully support Adobe Flash at launch. And whether they’ll actually strike a chord with consumers is an even bigger question. I suspect most other PC and phone makers will wait to see the answer before fully commiting to the smartbook space.