by Anton Shilov
04/14/2010 | 06:27 AM
The concept of smartbook*computers was first unveiled by Qualcomm back in late 2008 in a bid to address the market of truly inexpensive and ultra low-power mobile computers. Qualcomm promised that ARM-based systems will be able to work for up to ten hours despite of the cost around $200. However, despite of ambitious plans, it looks like smartbooks will remain an unmissed link between tablets and netbooks.
Last week Lenovo Group said that it would delay shipments of its Skylight systems, currently the only smartbooks announced by a first-tier PC manufacturer, by about three months. Lenovo did not reveal actual reasons for the delay, leaving the market to make guesses. However, one of the obvious problems with Skylight is that it costs the same amount of money ($499) as the entry-level Apple iPad 16GB and that it is by far behind the latter in terms of software support. In fact, now that there is $499 non-3G Apple iPad 16GB, which boasts similar battery life, comes with better screen, better graphics capabilities, better software support, does not need to be online all the time, but features no keyboard, Skylight’s chances for success do not seem to be high. To make the matters even worse for this Lenovo product, there are other slate-type PCs incoming and those devices are projected to be more affordable than Skylight or iPad.
On emerging markets, slate-type personal computers are unlikely to get really popular since PCs that are bought in developing countries are usually the first and only computers and customers would prefer to have a keyboard that at least looks and feels like a keyboard and considering low cost of smartbooks they may indeed be successful there. However, in well-developed countries a lot of customers are likely to prefer to have a tablet rather than a smartbook for basic web-browsing, reading or watching videos.
Nvidia Corp., the company that is a new player on the market of system-on-chip (SoC) devices for ultra-mobile products, once said that it had 50+ design wins with Tegra-series products (which probably includes first-gen Tegra products for smartphones/players and second-gen Tegra for tablets/slates/smartbooks and smarthphones), besides, the firm announced seven Tegra first-gen products last year, among which five were smartbooks and two were tablets. The second-generation Tegra SoC is indisputably much more powerful and executives from Nvidia have been stressing that it suits well for slate-type PCs. Indeed, Nvidia is seeing higher demand for tablets rather than smartbooks, even though the latter still make sense, according to the company.
“We see more tablet projects in the works than smartbooks, but the clamshell form-factor is still viable for consumers with heavy text input on the web (email, IM chat). It is subjective, so both tablets and smartbooks will have market acceptance via segmentation,” said Bill Henry, director of Tegra product management at Nvidia.
Even Intel, a huge proponent of netbooks, claims that tablets are indeed the next big thing. Intel itself if preparing code-named Moorestown platform for slate-type systems and the firm is going to showcase them at Computex Taipei 2010 in early June.
“I view tablets much like I viewed netbooks two years ago which was a new category then that was market expansive. I think tablets will also be a new category that will also likely be market expansive. If I look forward over the course of the year, particularly at Computex coming up the first week of June, we have a lot of our customers announcing new tablet form-factors around Atom and around Moorestown versions of Atom and in their support for a multitude of operating environments. You will see products on Android, on Windows 7 and on MeeGo,” said Paul Otellini, chief executive officer and president of Intel.
The fundamental issue with smartbooks is that they are supposed to be based on Linux operating system, which was not too successful with netbooks. However, when it comes to tablets with specifically tailored operating environment along with touch-screen input, Linux may well have a chance. Moreover, since people tend to expect more from clamshell form-factor devices, smartbooks are unlikely to deliver to expectations, meanwhile, the demands from tablets will be much lower, partly because one will hardly use many applications or demanding applications on them. Finally, slate PCs are more suitable for consumption of multimedia content on the go, basic web-browsing or reading electronic books than clamshell PCs and everything shows that e-books and multimedia are gaining market acceptance.
The world’s first smartbook from a large manufacturer – Lenovo Skylight – is delayed by three months and it is likely that the decision was made in order to make it more competitive. There are no other tier-one PC makers, who have announced any ARM-based mobile computers. In the meantime, tablets get more powerful and netbooks are gaining battery life. Will anyone need a smartbook in such an environment? Perhaps, yes, but it looks like smartbooks will remain an unmissed link between smartphones, tablets, netbooks and notebooks.
*While we do understand that the company called Smartbook AG owns the appropriate trademark in certain countries, in this particular article we use the term “smartbook” to refer to mobile computers in clamshell form-factors that are powered by ARM architecture-based microprocessors or system-on-chip devices.