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.

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15 replies on “ARM: It ain’t the chips that are delaying the launch of smartbooks”

  1. There is a huge ready market for in US schools. Elementary school kids don’t care if they are using Linux or Windows. They just need something small, light, fast-loading, reliable, with all-day battery, and cheap.

    1. In theory. In reality most school systems are deeply in bed with MIcrosoft and it’s universe of applications. Everything from Accelerated Reader in the lower grades to SAT prep in the higher ones, everything expects to be able to install a Windows executable on the workstation.

      I’m saying this as a dedicated follower of the penguin who has managed to keep a public library system mostly uninfested by Microsoft. I also help some with the local school system and have seen it first hand.

    2. Unfortunately, John is absolutely correct regarding the educational ecosystem. I also do what I can to support FLOSS in education, but it’s an extremely uphill battle, almost completely vertical at times. Solutions like WINE have helped in the case of AR, but when you have the higher ups in bed with Microsoft, it’s very hard to dislodge that hegemony.

  2. The biggest handicap most alternatives to the iPad have is the lack of an alternative to the iTunes App Store.

    It does little to sell a tablet or Smartbook with little to no apps you can add to it as needed. Especially with the majority of potential buyers wanting an Out of Box instant working experience.

    As already mentioned by others they could go with a linux solution, but linux does have a learning curve and not all available apps are universally compatible. Adding customer support to the cost the companies will have to deal with and not all of them are willing or capable to do so.

    1. so far the only real alternative is android market, but google is mismanaging that one badly.

      1. It’s more that the Android Market is right now just for Smartphones and expanding it to other devices will bring up problems with compatibility that Google has thus far avoided but with the upcoming Google tablet in the works we may see that change and that will be a real boon for other android devices.

  3. Hmm. I like the concept of a smartbook. I’d like a device with the power that seems to be available with a SOC like the Tegra 2, a keyboard, etc. The issue is that I just don’t know how well the devices would sell to the general public. They would have to have excellent build quality, and be cheaper than a standard netbook because they don’t offer standard ‘features’ like the ability to run Windows and all the applications that go with it.

    I personally wouldn’t find the lack of Windows support to be a huge loss. I know plenty of people who would.

    The other truly major issue I find, is that I don’t really want a smartbook device with a walled garden around it where I can only use the creator of my smartbook’s software. I simply don’t find that a compelling use model in any way. I’ll tollerate it with a lot of grumbling on a tablet or smartphone (because I have to), and maybe just maybe on a one hundred or one hundred and fifty dollar smartbook…

    Not on anything more expensive though, and that’s the real rub for makers of smartbooks. There’s even less margin on these than netbooks, and to go with that you’ll have even more consumer hesitation. It’s not going to be an easy sell unless they can really differentiate themselves, and I just haven’t seen it.

    1. I suspect you have hit on what will end up as the fatal flaw in smartbooks. Almost all will be bundled with cell access, be locked down tight and the bundled software won’t get squat for updates from the vendor.

      Even if they are ‘open’ in theory, unless some standards (booting, location and access to mass storage, access to hardware config info, etc) get established before they actually start shipping each product will have to build up a community of interested users to port one or at most a handful of distros to it. ARM machines don’t have a BIOS and as of yet no real standards for installing a distro since to date ARM has been a synonym for embedded.

      And the lack of Windows will be for real with ARM. WIth x86 there was always a bit of the ‘ol wink wink nudge nudge routine going on where it was understood that if you didn’t like the Linux provided you could switch distros or ‘find’ (know what I mean?) a Windows CD and install it from a USB CD drive. I mean the Linux version of the EeePC (at least the Mrs’s Eee900) even shipped with a Windows driver CD along with the Linux recovery disc.

      1. there may also be movement from microsoft in the ARM direction again. I think there was some recent news floating around about a updated winCE using windows NT and some other tech that will bring it more in line with the X86 windows.

        if they can make cross-compiling easier, it may well be that microsoft have dropped some under the table hints that there is a alternative coming. And it would not surprise me if said alternative comes with a nice bulk discount and a promise that it will need less work from the OEMs to ready before shipping…

  4. Both Zobeid and Raziel make compelling arguments. Still, these manufacturers could avoid the mistakes made the first time around with netbooks. Unfortunately, the more they wait until Adobe or MS catch up, the more people Apple will lure with its iPad. The iPad has neither MS Office or Flash, yet it’s selling like hotcakes. And as usable as the onscreen keyboard on the iPad can be even for touch-typing, it just doesn’t compare to a real keyboard, and no laptop available today can match the battery life found on ARM smartbooks.

    1. indeed, skip android, go for meego. Thanks to QT, getting a office suite on there will be a snap. Heck, nokia was working with koffice to get a phone/tablet friendly version onto their N900 (maemo5, one part of meego) before the meego announcement. Koffice can, just as openoffice, handle odf and, to some degree at least, ms office files.

      thats really the problem with focusing on android. While it may allow the lockin so wanted by the telcos and others, it will not allow leveraging the existing linux ecosystem.

  5. Err, why can’t ARM-based netbooks run “desktop software”? A netbook with Linux should be able to run most of what a desktop Linux box can run. They can run OpenOffice, can’t they?

    I don’t see why this is a problem. Apple sell a lot of notebooks that don’t run Windows, and most people seem to like them just fine. This sounds to me like merely an excuse bandied by companies that are fearful of angering Microsoft.

    1. Fear of angering Microsoft isn’t irrational if you are in the IT space.

      Look how the EeePC came to be. Asus and Intel saw a threat in the OLPC. Asus had Intel’s partnership for cover against the Wrath of Balmer plus the fact Microsoft simply had no product to offer in the price points the original plan for the Eee was aiming for.

      Once Asus had multiple month backlogs the way was cleared for everyone else to scramble to catch up. Even a Microsoft Sales rep is smart enough to know “Asus is selling millions of units” is a hard argument to rebut and once it was “WE sold X units last quarter” the argument was over. So they made em an offer they couldn’t refuse and essentially gave away XP licenses until the game changed. Now netbooks are expensive enough they got most OEMs back in the Windows fold without breaking bones.

      Smartbooks will have the same issues. Who wants to look their MS Rep in the eye and say, “We are launching a new product category where you have no product to pitch. If we succeed the world will be rid of you bastards.” Knowing that a direct confrontation could end all of your existing product lines.

      Notice how all the ARM netbooks, even the ones made by dodgy Chinese outfits have suddenly switched to WinCE. Everyone fears MIcrosoft. At one point I believed that at least the Chinese consumer electronics makers would flood the market with cheap linux based netbooks because they had no reason to fear. But apparently everything is so interrelated in China there are no truly independent outfits.

      Which is why it is the cell companies who are most likely to push smartbooks. They already gave Balmer the finger years ago with EPOC and have zero desire to be slaves to Microsoft like Dell and HP. But they will install EVIL in everything they sell because it is simply in their nature.

  6. I have one word to add… “iTunes” Not the biggest fan myself but I know tones of people who would reject/have rejected Linux because there is no iTunes. This, plus the previously mentioned lack of Microsoft Office makes it a hard sell to the parents/grandparents/kids/”simple computer users” of the world. They don’t care about the possible alternatives.

    I think this might be one advantage that an iPod Touch/iPad would have over a smartbook. While neither the Apple devices or smartbooks would have Microsoft Office itself (at this point), the Apple devices at least have and utilize iTunes.

    1. Actually you can get iTunes on Linux with WINE, and they got alternatives that will still work with iPods, etc. But people should care about the alternatives because many of them are arguably better and it’s always better to have a choice.

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