First Android netbook in three months at $250

The first netbook computer running the Google Inc.-backed Android mobile operating system on a low-cost ARM chip could become available to customers within three months, the maker’s co-founder said this week.

The Alpha 680, designed by Guangzhou Skytone Transmission Technologies Co., is going through final testing now, Nixon Wu, Skytone’s co-founder, told Computerworld exclusively.

The 50-employee company, located in Guangzhou, a city in southern China, is aiming to have final prototypes ready by June, with manufacturers likely to introduce models to the market one to two months after that, Wu said.

The Alpha 680 caused a flurry of excitement after it was spotted online earlier this week by Computerworld blogger Seth Weintraub.

Prototypes actually made their public debut at an electronics trade show in Hong Kong the week before.

“We’ve gotten 300 inquiries from different countries,” Wu said.

The excitement surrounding a no-frills computer made by a little-known Chinese manufacturer is mostly in response the potential of the technology underlying it.

Used in billions of cellphones today, ARM processors are less expensive and more energy-efficient than even Intel Corp.’s power-sipping Atom CPU.

Meanwhile, Android is fast emerging as a popular flavor of Linux for smartphones such as Google’s G1, attracting interest from software developers as quickly as Apple Inc.’s iPhone did.

Some market experts predict that the combination of ARM and Android could help usher in an era of sub-$200 netbooks with 12-hour battery life and creative designs highly tailored for different consumers.

It could also allow ARM/Android netbooks to wrest the netbook market from Atom chips and the Windows XP operating system, which could weaken or break Intel and Microsoft Corp.’s grip on the PC market.

Great expectations

Ian Drew, an executive at ARM Holdings PLC, told Computerworld earlier this month that he expects to see “six to 10 ARM-based netbooks this year, starting in Q3.”

As the first in this coming wave, the Alpha 680 may enthrall some netbook watchers and disappoint others.

The Alpha 680 will break new ground in portability. Prototypes weigh about 1.5 lb. and measure 8.5 in. long, 6 in. wide and 1.2 in. thick, said Wu — petite enough to fit inside a small purse or shoulder bag.

“It’s definitely smaller than the Eee,” Wu said. (The original Eee 701 weighs 922 grams and measures 9 by 6.5 by 1.4 in.).

The Alpha 680 is using an ARM11 CPU running at 533 MHz. First introduced in 2002, the ARM11 chip, including later, more powerful versions, has been used in many different smartphones, including Apple Inc.’s iPhone and iPhone Touch devices.

Android performs fairly well on the chip, said Wu. YouTube Inc.’s Flash-encoded videos, for instance, can play fine, he said.

The Alpha 680 will have a 7-in. LCD screen at 800 by 480 pixels, 128MB of DDR2 RAM (expandable to 256 MB) and a 1GB solid-state disk (SSD) drive (expandable to 4 GB, though users can also add storage through the SD card or two USB ports). It will also have built-in Wi-Fi, keyboard and touch pad.

These bare-bones specs are what will enable the Alpha 680 to hit a $250 price, said Wu.

That’s more than the $200 price talked up by ARM but less than the $300-to-$500 price of most Atom netbooks running Windows XP.

As volume ramps up, “I hope we can make it even lower,” Wu said.

On the downside, the Alpha 680 won’t ship installed with many local applications, though users can easily buy and download apps from the Android Market. Wu acknowledged, however, that up to 20% of Android apps don’t yet run on the Alpha 680 because of compatibility issues that still need to be ironed out.

The Alpha 680’s 2-cell battery will last between two and four hours while surfing the Web using its built-in Wi-Fi or optional 3G antenna, Wu said. That is far less than the eight- to 12-hour battery life that ARM has talked up.

How low can you go?

A longtime engineer in the satellite industry, Wu, a 50-year-old Hong Kong native, co-founded Skytone in 2005 with another partner. Contrary to some reports, Skytone is unrelated to a similarly-named maker of Skype telephone handsets.

The company didn’t have a firm direction until an encounter with U.S. retailing giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in 2006 turned it toward the low-cost PC market.

“They were looking for ways to build a $100 PC. We had expertise in porting Linux to embedded systems, and so they found us,” Wu said. “At the end of the day, we couldn’t meet Wal-Mart’s target, but we continued on this path anyway.”

That resulted in Skytone’s first product last year, the $180 Alpha 400. Prior sub-$200 PCs were desktops that reached that price by not including a monitor. The Alpha 400 was the first mobile computer for under $200.

Reviewers in the U.S. lambasted the Alpha 400’s slow 400-MHz MIPS-like processor and overall build quality.

Skytone still shipped more than 100,000 units of the Alpha 400 last year, Wu said. Most were sold in Europe under brand names such as the Elonex ONEt.

Unburdened by expensive factories to run, most of Skytone’s 50 employees are software developers recently graduated from colleges from across China.

They are feverishly working on a whole line of low-cost Linux computers complementing the Alpha 680, including the following:

  • The Alpha 400P, the successor to last year’s hit. It will have a faster 500-MHz MIPS processor. And like all of Skytone’s other computers apart from the 680, it will run a version of Linux 2.6 customized by Skytone’s developers and bundled with free Microsoft Office-like software.
  • The Alpha 300 is a $99 net-top PC that is half the size of the 680 and meant to be connected to a television set. It also runs a MIPS processor, a low-cost, low-power chip similar to ARM. Wu envisions the Alpha 300 being used at home by users who would control the 300 with a TV remote control and use it to surf the Web during commercial breaks.
  • The Alpha 700 is an 8.9-inch touch-screen tablet PC with 1,024-by-600 resolution, a 500-MHz MIPS processor, and 2GB SSD drive that will cost between $200 and $250, says Wu. For cost reasons, the screen is not touch-controlled, so people must use a stylus.

Wu acknowledged the doubts around the Alpha 680’s potential quality and performance.

He argued that the Alpha 400 has proven to be “quite durable, as the big OEMs knew how to strengthen the product during manufacturing.”

And he said, comparing his computers with today’s netbooks – some of which have gotten so powerful they sport DVD drives and can support HD video – is unfair.

Target: The rest of us

Rather than targeting affluent Western consumers, Wu’s goal is to bring low-cost computing to the “80% of the world” that can’t afford it today. That means villagers in Africa or farmers in China, he said, who need access to information on the Web as much as anyone else.

“Watching TV over the Internet is not the most urgent thing for them,” Wu said.

Besides Skytone, Taiwanese vendors such as Asustek Computer, Acer and MSI Computer have either confirmed or are rumored to be working on netbooks or smartphones running Android, an ARM processor or both.

Hewlett-Packard Co. has confirmed its interest in Android netbooks, while Dell Inc. is said to be interested in Android smartphones.

Though Skytone is likely to be overtaken by the bigger brands when they enter the market, Wu welcomes them anyway, saying it will grow the market and benefit consumers.

“We are a for-profit company trying to make a $100 device,” he said. “The more vendors that come out, then the more affordable everyone’s netbooks will get.”

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