Five big issues with ARM and Android netbooks

The tech industry is always looking for the next big thing: Bing is gaining on Google, the Palm Pre will dethrone the iPhone, and so on. One of the latest "next big things" is the duo of ARM and Android which, if you buy the hype, will wrest the PC industry from Wintel's grip.

The tech industry is always looking for the next big thing: Bing is gaining on Google, the Palm Pre will dethrone the iPhone, and so on. One of the latest "next big things" is the duo of ARM and Android which, if you buy the hype, will wrest the PC industry from Wintel's grip.

Because it has the DNA of smartphones--most of which are based on ARM designs--this new type of netbook is supposed to offer many advantages over Intel Atom-based models including a fast boot time, always-on wireless broadband and all-day battery life. Qualcomm--one of several wireless companies developing chipsets with ARM cores for this new market--has coined the term smartbook to distinguish these devices from netbooks.

Smartbooks were the talk of the recent Computex show in Taiwan. Qualcomm said 15 companies--including Asus, Compal, Foxconn, HTC, Inventec, Toshiba and Wistron--are working on 30 different devices using its ARM-based Snapdragon platform. The first Snapdragon product, the Toshiba TG01, is actually a smartphone for Japan, but the company showed several smartbooks as well including an Eee PC running Google's Android. In its meeting room, ARM was demonstrating smartbook and nettop prototypes using application processors from Qualcomm and Freescale with various Linux distributions. Acer announced it would be the first to ship an Android netbook, albeit using Intel's Atom, sometime next quarter. Competitors such as HP and Dell have previously said they are experimenting with Android as well (now HP may even be working on Snapdragon-based Minis).

But don't run out to Best Buy looking for a smartbook just yet. Despite all the announcements, there are still major technical and business challenges to using both ARM and Android in netbooks. Here are five big ones:

1. Performance The multimedia application processors from companies such as Qualcomm, Freescale , Samsung and Texas Instruments that could be used in smartbooks are all based on ARM's Cortex-A series design. By smartphone standards, these are very powerful processors. They have CPUs that run at speeds of around 1GHz or more, support WXGA displays (1280x720) and can play 720p video. But it's still too early to tell how ARM-based smartbooks will perform in comparison to Atom-based netbooks, which themselves pale in comparison to sub-$1,000 ultra-thin laptops based on Intel's ULV processors and AMD's Athlon Neo. Early impressions have been mixed, but there's really no way to tell based on the prototypes that I spent a few minutes with at Computex. Smartbooks aren't even out yet, and Qualcomm has already announced a faster chip with a 1.3GHz ARM core, manufactured at 45nm, which it claims will deliver 30 percent better performance while using less power. The performance of smartbooks will no doubt be fine for typical smartphone tasks such as e-mail and Web browsing, but it will be interesting to see how it handles productivity applications. There's one area where smartbooks should easily outperform netbooks: battery life. Both ARM and Qualcomm have been promising all-day battery life.

2. Consistent look-and-feel Now that Microsoft has put to rest rumors of Windows 7 for ARM (though not entirely), smartbooks are left with Linux, which has made inroads on servers, but never seems to get any real traction on client PCs. Notebooks with Ubuntu Linux or other distributions have gone nowhere. Netbooks were probably the best chance for Linux in a long time, but today the vast majority of mini-notebooks ship with Windows XP. Whether you love or hate it, Windows looks and works exactly the same on all netbooks and PCs. The same isn't true of Linux. There are several distributions, and each one has many different interfaces. PC makers also put their own stamp on this with interfaces such as HP's Mi (Mobile Internet) on its Mini netbooks. At Computex, I even saw a 10-inch smartbook from Pegatron, a contract manufacturer, with a Freescale ARM chip running Xandros Linux with a Windows XP "look-a-like" user interface.

Linux boosters see this customization as a big advantage. Trust me, it's not. The smartphone model--lots of operating systems, lots of carrier customization and apps--won't work well on smartbooks. When you start-up a new PC, you should have a reasonable idea what the OS will look like and how it works. That's the idea behind Intel's Moblin v2, which I saw running on many different Linux distributions such as Ubuntu, Linpus and Novell's SUSE Linux--all with the same basic look-and-feel. Google's Android has a ton of buzz, but it looks to me like it still needs a lot more work. Frankly the Aspire One netbook running Android under glass at Acer's Computex booth wasn't very impressive. Even ARM admits that Android isn't ready for netbooks yet.

3. Software and hardware compatibility No Windows 7 means no Windows apps. There are lots of good Linux alternatives, such as Sun's OpenOffice, but they still need to be ported from x86 to ARM. Adobe and ARM have been working on a version of the Flash Player since last fall. At Computex, Qualcomm announced that several developers, including RealNetworks, Zinio and Xandros, are working on version of their software for Snapdragon. There's also the question of how smartbook software will be distributed. Carriers will no doubt try to promote their own applications and services. A better solution for these always-on devices would be to use the same app stores that work with smartphones. But that means Android Market, for example, may need to support versions of the each application for every display size and resolution, processor and operating system. That sounds messy, and potentially confusing for users. Hardware compatibility is another big challenge. When users plug-in a USB peripheral, they expect it to work. That's simply not the case with many Linux PCs. If smartbooks can't connect to printers and digital cameras, it will seriously limit their utility.

4. Local storage The first netbooks came with small SSDs, and many PC makers are still pushing configurations with 8GB or 16GB SSDs. Often these are paired with Linux configurations. Bit for bit, SSDs cost far more than hard drives; a 64GB SSD costs three times as much as a 160GB laptop hard drive. But a hard drive also has a minimum cost--perhaps $35--because of all the parts. By contrast, 8GB of flash memory currently runs about $16, so a low-density SSD actually cuts costs. The theory is that we'll all use Web-based apps and cloud-based services to store our stuff. But buyers have voted with their wallets, and they want netbooks with real local storage. The same will be true for smartbooks. The only catch is that some designs may simply be too small for standard 2.5-inch laptop drives, which means they'll be forced to use pricier 1.8-inch drives. In that case, a 32GB SSD may be a decent low-cost solution with a lightweight Linux OS, but forget about the 8GB or 16GB SSDs--no one wants them.

5. It's the service, stupid Perhaps the biggest problem with smartbooks--and subsidized netbooks--has nothing to do with the hardware or software. Instead it's the cost of wireless data service, especially in the U.S. Netbook data plans from AT&T and Verizon currently cost $40 to $60. That's obviously on top of whatever you're already paying for your smartphone, which probably offers similar e-mail, browsing and social networking features. Eventually the wireless carriers will need to offer bundles similar to cell phone family plans, in which you can add lines for reasonable monthly fee. The data caps on these plans are also going to be a big issue. Verizon Wireless has already increased the data cap on its $40 netbook data plan from 50MB to 250MB, and lowered the overage charges. Hopefully other carriers will follow suit (though AT&T is getting lots of flack for not reducing prices for the iPhone 3G S). Smartbooks and netbooks with integrated 3G also don't make much sense if you also own a laptop. In this case, it's better to have a USB broadband modem so you can use one wireless account with both mobile devices (unfortunately there aren't many laptops or netbooks in the U.S. with a SIM card slot). Another option is Novatel's MiFi Mobile Hotspot, a portable wireless router for CDMA (Verizon, Sprint), and now W-CDMA, networks. It isn't cheap, but it is very flexible since it works with any WiFi-enabled device, and can connect up to five devices at one time.

All of these are, I suspect, reasons Qualcomm and others are pushing the term smartbook to avoid a direct comparison with netbooks. Smartbooks will be a bit smaller, they'll be geared specifically to "always-on" applications, and they will cost less than $200. Netbooks are more like mini-PCs; they can handle all these communications tasks but are general-purpose devices that cost more. At least that's the theory. The problem is that AT&T and Verizon are already selling netbooks for $50 to $200 with a wireless data contract. If I can get a netbook for the same price with a larger display and better performance, and it runs Windows 7 and works with all of my apps and peripherals, why would I buy a smartbook?

Ultimately smartbooks face the same "in-between" challenge as netbooks, only to a greater degree. Make a smartbook smaller and more limited, and it's just a bulky smartphone. Make it a little bigger, add more features, and tweak the performance, and it competes directly with netbooks and ultra-thin laptops. In this case, a few extra hours of battery life isn't likely to be enough to overcome the limitations of ARM-based smartbooks running Linux.

That's not to say I don't like the smartbook concept. The growth of netbooks demonstrates there is demand for an inexpensive, highly-portable computing device. And having more choice in mobile computing is always a good thing. The idea of a netbook with a design similar to the Sony VAIO P series that is always connected with all-day battery life for under $200 is pretty appealing. But to be successful, smartbooks will need to address these issues.


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