New netbooks blend “best features” of laptops, smartphones

Even by the rapid-fire standards of the technology industry, netbooks have evolved quickly. However, the most significant netbook changes of all will start becoming available in the next year.

First popularized after Taiwanese vendor Asustek released its EeePC in October of 2007, netbooks initially were small and cheap. The first EeePC, for example, had a slow Celeron processor, a seven-inch screen, weighed about two pounds and cost $400.

It didn’t take long for Asus and competitors such as Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Lenovo to release a second generation of netbooks. These usually come with 10-inch screens, better keyboards, and a faster Atom processor, for anywhere from $300 to $600 or above.

Nobody expects today’s style of netbook to go away. But currently a host of vendors are hard at work on an entirely new type of netbook, which they say will use new processors and operating systems.

The old netbooks were, essentially, the tiniest notebooks computer vendors could make, notes Glen Lurie, president of AT&T’s Emerging Devices Organization.

“But now there are new entrants looking at netbooks as mobility devices,” says Lurie. “They’re saying, why not use other chipsets and other operating systems? This [attitude] is leading to some nice innovation.” In particular, Lurie says, the new netbooks will blend the best features of netbooks and smartphones.

Here’s what to expect as these new netbooks begin to be available by the end of the year.

A new heart

If the heart of a computing device is its processor, the new netbooks will be getting something of a heart transplant.

Until recently, netbooks have used variations of the same long-standing x86 processors that were used on desktops and laptops since the early 1980s. These processors, such as Intel’s Atom, were modified to use relatively less power than standard laptop processors, making them a good fit for small devices such as netbooks.

Wistron PBook
The Wistron PBook will be based on the Snapdragon platform.

By contrast, the new netbooks will largely use processors based on designs from the U.K.’s ARM Holdings PLC, long a developer of processors used in cell phones and smartphones. Several vendors will be manufacturing these processors, including Texas Instruments and Freescale. However, the processor that has garnered the most attention is Snapdragon, which is being manufactured by Qualcomm, another long-time developer of phone chips.

These new processors aren’t just change for change’s sake, according to Mark Frankel, vice president of prouct management in Qualcomm’s CDMA Technologies division. Rather, the new processors will enable netbooks to have a new set of capabilities, he says.

Using similar hardware such as Atom processors, “made netbooks somewhat cookie-cutter-like,” Frankel says. “Now, there’s a transformation occurring in netbooks.”

In particular, Frankel claims that Snapdragon draws only 500 milliwatts of power, which is one-fourth the power draw of Intel’s Atom processor.

“Because of the lower power requirements, you’ll be able to leave it on all day like you do with your smartphone,” Frankel says. Another key advance is that these devices can be turned on without the traditional minutes-long boot sequence.

In addition, while the initial version of Snapdragon will operate at a relatively slow 1GHz, it will have extensive media acceleration capabilities. These new capabilities make the new netbooks a perfect fit for a projected new target audience, proponents believe.

“Users will be younger, more mobile and they’ll want e-mail access, media content, the Web, social networking,” AT&T’s Lurie notes. “They want to get to these things immediately, so you can’t have a two-minute boot sequence and you need a full-day battery.”

Adds Frankel,”There will be a richer user experience with more emphasis on entertainment than on productivity and PowerPoint.”

Focus on a new OS

The first netbooks used Linux as way of keeping costs down. However, once netbooks became available with Windows pre-installed, Linux proved to be less popular among purchasers.

“A lot of those (Linux) machines were returned,” says Avi Greengart, principal analyst for mobile devices for market research firm Current Analysis. A big reason for that, Greengart says, was a lack of familiar applications, such as Microsoft Office, that run on Linux.

“People didn’t know what to do with the Linux machines,” Greengart says. The result was the overwhelming success of Windows, primarily Windows XP, for netbooks.

Despite this, the new netbooks will use different operating systems. In fact, Snapdragon can’t run desktop versions of Windows, although it does run Windows Mobile. Several variations of Linux will run on Snapdragon, but the OS most often linked to the processor is Google’s Android, which was initially developed for smartphones.

According to Greengart, the same lack of applications that made Linux problematic for consumers will remain a problem with Android. However, advocates cite Android’s focus on multimedia use, Web access and social networking.

Plus, as an operating system developed for smaller devices, Android is simpler to use than Windows, according to advocates. Qualcomm’s Frankel, for instance, predicts a number of the new netbooks will have touch-screen capabilities.

Frankel also insists that it’s not true that there are no business-like applications available for Linux. “Snapdragon runs Linux, and OpenOffice is a Linux application,” he says, referring to the open source Office-compatible suite.

Will Apple play?

One possible competitor in this space — and, as usual, the one that is attracting high levels of attention — is Apple. Apple officials, including Steve Jobs, have soundly dissed netbooks as being virtually unusable versions of larger notebooks.

However, some news organizations claim that Apple is hard at work on a device that fills the gap between laptops and the company’s iPhone. Nobody knows if this will look like a netbook, although there is speculation that it will be something that might be called a “media pad,” perhaps a larger version of the company’s popular iPod Touch.

Such a device could create a whole new class of devices, some believe, that could radically change the netbook market.

“If they shrink MacBook down a bit, that’s not disruptive,” Greengart says. “But if they create something completely new, like making the iPod Touch larger, that would be disruptive.”

Noury Al-Khaledy, Intel’s general manager for netbook and nettop computing, is skeptical of the new ARM-powered netbooks, but he isn’t as skeptical about a possible new device from Apple.

“An iPod Touch on steroids, if they did a great job, could really capture some market,” Al-Khaledy says. “But that’s not a netbook competitor.” Rather, he said, such a device would be more like a tablet than a smaller notebook.

As always, Apple is not talking about its plans. The company did not return phone calls requesting a comment about a possible netbook.

A new approach

Netbooks as they currently are being sold will continue to evolve, analysts and industry spokespeople agree.

“We’ll have a big announcement about our future (netbook) processors in June,” Intel’s Al-Khaledy says. He refused to talk about the specific capabilities of those new processors, saying only, “in general, you can expect to see manufacturers deliver lower-cost, higher-performing netbooks.”

In addition, Microsoft is positioning the lower-end Starter Edition of its forthcoming Windows 7 operating system to be appropriate for netbooks. A number of vendors, such as Hewlett-Packard, have said they will use that operating system.

On a separate track, though, a host of vendors — including some big names such as Samsung, LG Electronics, Toshiba and Asustek — are developing Snapdragon-based netbooks. Initially, Qualcomm said it expected these new devices to be available by the end of this year, and a small number of them should be.

However, Frankel acknowledges that most vendors won’t have their new netbooks available as soon as originally had been thought. Vendors “are straining to get devices out by this Christmas, but that’s pretty aggressive,” Frankel says. “Whether it’s Christmas or the first half of next year remains to be seen.” He attributed the delays to the inevitable difficulties related to getting new types of products out the door.

The new pricing model

Another emerging change in netbooks is how they will be sold — and how much they will cost.

While details are scant, vendors such as ARM predict the new ARM-based netbooks should retail for around $200. However, cellular operators also are likely to be selling new netbooks with built-in 3G modems at highly reduced prices — if you agree to a two-year data plan commitment.

Communications vendors have long subsidized the price of cell phones and smartphones as a way of attracting customers. Now AT&T Wireless is experimenting with subsidized netbooks costing as little as $50, plus a $60 monthly data plan and a two-year contract, in its Philadelphia and Atlanta markets.

“We’re very pleased with the results,” Lurie said of the experiment, although he wouldn’t provide any specifics about the test or AT&T’s future netbook plans. Verizon is also reportedly looking seriously at subsidizing netbooks, including, according to some reports, Apple’s alleged media pad.

Do these new netbooks have a future?

Even though the first of these netbooks are still months away from release, they have drawn their share of doubters.

“I’m very skeptical,” says Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for market analysis firm NPD Group. “It’s not a traditional product and it requires users to do things they’re not used to doing. It doesn’t run Windows. How is it going to play with people’s home network, plugging in USB drives, printers and the like?” He predicted these new netbooks will be relegated to small market niches.

Current Analysis’ Avi Greengart is also skeptical of the new approach to netbooks. “They’re trying to promote something between a cell phone and a computer,” he says. “I understand the use-case for computers and cell phones, but I don’t understand the use-case for something in the middle.”

However, proponents of the new devices scoff at the skeptics. “It feels like the smartphone space a couple of years ago,” says AT&T’s Lurie. “Then, smartphones were mostly for business folks. Now they’re for everybody. Netbooks are in that same infancy.”

David Haskin is a freelance writer specializing in mobile and wireless issues.


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