Five big issues with ARM and Android netbooks

Five big issues with ARM and Android netbooks

Summary: 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.

Topics: Android, Software, Smartphones, Processors, Operating Systems, Open Source, Mobility, Linux, Hardware, Google, Storage

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  • My Guess

    Applications trump look and feel.
  • Please explain....

    I'm confused as to how netbooks with Linux have gone no where. It seems like normal American consumer amnesia to me. Well lets retrace exactly how we got to the point of Windows 7 being released this year to refresh some memories.

    * Vista suffers marketing and tech blunders
    * Asus releases Eee with Linux
    * Eee sells like hotcakes
    * Every OEM under the sun rushes to make a netbook
    * Most ship with Linux as Vista is too bloated and XP is at EOL
    * MS sees netbooks SELLING and extends the life of XP along with a price drop for netbooks
    * MS knowing they can't keep XP around forever works to make their Vista replacement work on netbooks
    * Win 7 comes on the scene

    Now if Linux went no where on netbooks then Win 7 would not be here today. So the question is not whether Linux CAN make inroads. Its shown that it can. The question is whether consumers will try something new or stick to what they are used to.

    If you ask me the OEM's shot themselves in the foot. Had the never introduced XP on netbooks the netbook would have never been associated with a PC and people would have taken to new interfaces much like they do with cell phones. They introduced a price barrier in Windows that they did not have to have. NOW the OEM's are trying to regain the MS tax free advantage by renaming the things to smartbooks in a direct attempt to relate them to smartphones. With the price difference and the increased battery life etc. this may very well kill the current netbook market. People will question the purchase of a near $300 netbook rather than just purchasing a full notebook. The real advantages won't come until you get down to the smartbook market.

    MS will have to find a way to counter and the limits on Win 7 aren't going to help. They are quickly finding themselves between a rock and a hard place and its why they are trying to kill netbooks as well. They want to erase the idea by calling them low end notebooks or something which would in the end probably make them less desirable to the consumer. Yes consumers are that easily influenced by a simple term change. The new sum will be the same. A new market of netbooks called smartbooks that offer the advantages that the netbook market should have had in the first place.
    • Explained

      People don't like Linux. It's why its gone no where on the desktop.
      • Ahhh I get it now....

        So Win 7 is all just a dream. It doesn't really exist. Thank goodness because it was sure to suck regardless.
        • Linux failed on netbooks

          Talk to any sales person at Best Buy- they dumped the Linux netbooks because the returns were out of control.

          Consumers were buying up "cheap laptops" and not really knowing what they were getting. Then when none of their applications worked, they wanted refunds.

          Linux did well because the consumers weren't educated on what they were getting, and were disappointed with the product. Which is why Windows XP vastly outsells Linux on netbooks and most manufacturers strictly use Windows.

          This trend will continue with Windows 7- which is even faster than XP and will run quite well on a netbook.
          • The CEO of Asus doesn't agree...

            In fact he says in Europe people wanted the Linux option.

            However you only go on to prove the point I made in the original post which your probably failed to read. Win 7 isn't going to go anywhere on netbooks because MS is trying to kill the netbook market altogether. They don't want to give away their OS. The smartbook market will arise and that will be Linux based. The OEM's do not want to pay for Windows and some appear to be anxious to get people accustomed to another OS. After a growing pain period people will understand that this is no different than buying a Mac where you spend MORE than the cost of an average PC and can't run any of their Windows apps.

            Its amazing how you can put a Mac in a brick and mortar and people quickly learn what it means to use a different OS. The same will happen once Linux machines are finally in brick and mortars.

          • Nonsense

            The CEO of Asus said that more people in Europe bought Linux netbooks than in the US. But the fact is that, regardless of where you sell them, Windows based netbooks vastly outsell Linux netbooks.

            Of course Microsoft doesn't want to give away it's OS. It spends many $Bn every year building and improving their OS' and wants to charge a fair price for their work.

            And, no, they don't want to kill the netbook market, but they do want to be sure to receive a worthwhile return on their efforts.

            Let me ask you this:

            There's much hooplah about the pricing of Win7 on netbooks. Let's say that in the worst case Microsoft sells Win7 for netbooks at $40 per machine.

            Most netbooks currently sell at $380ish including XP which, if reports are to believed, costs OEM's $20 per copy.

            Considering Win7's amazing responisiveness, better driver and software support, better stability and security, improved UXP, would you balk at a $20 price hike to buy a netbook (probably with a faster CPU and more memory/storage, faster video etc) running Win7?

            I know I wouldn't.

            The fact is that in the overall scheme of things, an extra $30-40 for a netbook running Win7 (vs. $0 for *N*X that won't run any of my existing software, has spotty driver support, doesn't look and feel familiar, etc) is negligible.
          • re: Nonsense

            <font color=#808080><em>"Windows based netbooks vastly outsell Linux netbooks."</em></font>

            And this <em>so call victory</em> does nothing to ease M$'s pain. The screw is only tightening.

          • You basically repeat everything I say....

            ...and then make a stupid scenario.

            I never said Windows doesn't ship more than Linux. I said Linux does not have a higher return rate.

            We agree that MS does not want to give away its OS. Thats common sense and you waste time explaining. I don't want them to give it away and don't care because I don't use it. And yes they do want to kill the netbook market because there is no way they are going to be able to charge what they want for the OS on netbooks.

            For one I don't find Win7's responsiveness to be amazing...nor its stability or security or driver support or UI. I would balk at a cost of $20 when I have that and some for free. However the thing to REALLY balk at is paying $380 for a netbook. This is the reason I don't have one now and welcome the cheaper ARM netbooks. I could get a full sized full powered laptop from Dell for only $299.

            Sorry buddy but as someone who was a long time Windows user that has discovered Linux, Windows is simply not even worth $20. You can believe all the FUD you want about Linux but it has displaced Windows in my house without a hitch and provides a far superior user experience.
          • I love my Asus Eee PC with Linux

            [i]The fact is that in the overall scheme of things, an extra $30-40 for a netbook running Win7 (vs. $0 for *N*X that won't run any of my existing software, has spotty driver support, doesn't look and feel familiar, etc) is negligible.[/i]

            It has OpenOffice, which is one of my apps. It has Firefox, which is one of my apps. It has a simple wireless setup and I have yet to find a USB device it won't work with (trust me, I've tried!). And it boots in about 12 seconds with it's 4GB SSD, which gives me more than enough storage for what I do with it. Honestly, I can't see why I'd want a Win7 netbook when I already have a MacBook Pro. My next netbook will have a higher resolution screen though, I just hope it will be available with a small SSD and Linux, I'd hate to have to build it myself...
          • Tell that to Micheal Dell

            You know, the guy selling 30% of his netbooks with Ubuntu on 'em? The guy who keeps quietly expanding his Linux offerings because (gasp) people are buying them?
          • Oh no....

            ....let them tell it and nobody wants Linux. Dell is just making their sales up out of thin air.
          • Linux failed on netbooks -- not hardly!

            [i]Talk to any sales person at Best Buy- they dumped the Linux netbooks because the returns were out of control. [/i]

            Dell, HP, Acer and others don't have any more Linux returns than Windows returns -- and say so publicly.

            The real reasons that Best Buy doesn't sell Linux systems is because:

            (1) they don't want to. The profit margin on computers is notoriously thin; the real money is in follow-on sales for Anti-Virus&Security suites, Utility suites, Office "Productivity" software, Windows games, Warranty extensions, and Maintenance services like "Geek Squad" that can be relied on to produce more profits from the clueless shoppers on a recurring 6-12 month cycle,

            (2) they're often almost as (or even just as) clueless as their customers, and don't know much about computers themselves. They can't explain Linux or anything computing related to their customers, but they have learned what "answers" and "helpful guidance" will lead to bigger sales of higher-ticket items. If you don't believe me, walk into one of these places (one where they don't already know you) and play John "Clueless" Q. Public looking for a new computer...

            (3) Microsoft has been known to flex its marketing muscle with the Bricks & Mortar outlets' management, to discourage straying from the Windows fold. So even those willing to carry Linux netbooks as loss-leaders or bait-and-switch specials have decided to not carry them. Online, where MS has been less able to "sway" the retailers, Linux is doing well (in netbooks, about 1/3 of sales).

            In short, it's not about what the customers will buy, or whether they're happy with the purchase, it's about what's available to buy in the first place, even if customers are asking for something else.
          • Linux failed?

            There is no evidence of this? However it would be true to say that the initial propsitions based on linux technology failed.It would also be a crediable arguement to say that lessons have been learned..Most average users beleive that operating systems are found in medical facilities and the only bit of software on their laptops which springs to mind is office!!!

            Unix and Linux is likely to be around for a longtime yet!But there again..I am sure in 1993 these were the same words said about windows...excuse me my android phone is ringing!!
            The Management consultant
      • and who are you...

        ... to talk on the behalf of several hundred millions customers?

        System76 : +60% [u][b]profits[/b][/u] over the past year

        Surely Linux is bad for business....LOL.

      • A fallacy

        I think it's oversimplistic to say that people hate Linux or that Linux has gone nowhere on the desktop. The big problem with Linux, in many people's eyes, is that it is not Windows.

        There is something of a fallacy which was perpetuated by the makers of Linux-based netbooks (and some desktops such as those running G-OS). The fallacy was that there existed a large body of users whose use of the netbook would be limited to fairly simple tasks such as browsing the web, reading e-mail, simple word processing and IM/chat. The theory went that one could ship a box with a customized version of Linux and a suitable application selection and the user would be happy. This is, in many ways, a variation on the "Internet Appliance" strategy.

        The problem with the approach is that it assumes users who are a) content with the system and b) have no need/desire/experience to install additional/alternate applications. This might work if you're talking about a computer for "mom", but fails for most other users. Inexperienced users ran the risk of being frustrated in trying to install popular (Windows-based) applications while experienced users quickly learned to install an alternative OS such as XP or their favorite Linux distribution.

        Ironically, Microsoft tries to leverage this fallacy in its anti-Mac ads by essentially by approaching the idea of the cost difference between PCs and Macs for specific uses (irregardless of software).
    • quit begging the question

      Using the fact that MS extended XP's life so people WOULDN'T use Linux probably isn't the best argument that Linux will go somewhere.

      And the idea that people would rather pay for XP than use free Linux doesn't speak highly of it's inroads either. I have linux running in virtual box on my mac along with win7. Usability wise, I would put both os10 and win7 lightyears beyond linux for what I do. If your goal is to give a free or cheap laptop to every child, then I guess you may use something different.
      • Facts are facts

        MS is a business and like any business they aim to protect their revenue streams. People getting used to an OS that they can download off the internet for free is bad for their business. So yes they extended XP to stifle any growth of Linux. Facts are facts and theres nothing wrong with stating them.

        People paying for XP over Linux speaks to the fact that people have become so used to XP that they will hardly use anything else INCLUDING VISTA. It also doesn't help to be introduced to a new OS via online sales where you can't even try out the system.

        I have Win 7 running along with other Linux distros in virtual box on my Ubuntu laptop. Usability wise Windows 7 is still a joke compared to Linux. I compared Ubuntu 9.04 alpha to Win 7 and the performance loss with Win 7 was hilarious. The fact that with Linux I can have then running side by side on virtual desktops and flip between the two spell an upfront loss for Windows.

        Since I see you have a Mac and like Windows wasting money must be your goal. My goal is to get work done and I have done far more of that on Linux than I ever have on Windows. I hope whatever it is you do is worth that extra money.
        • a school

          and Active directory allows me to get 10 times the work done that I could individually managing each machine.

          I have a mac for that purpose too. School teachers are some of the hardest people to get to change anything. To get them to give up Mac for anything is crazy. Apple gives educational institutions such a deal that it makes it even harder. Ive gotten macs to join LDAP for mapping at least.

          I dont like to spend money, no, and I don't appreciate your conjecture. If you don't think I've tried all the alternatives, thats your problem, not mine. Linux aficionados love to tout open source without thinking about the programs that curriculum needs to support, as well as infrastructure. You continue to be productive, and I'll continue to make it so my 2000 kids can be productive, but I won't do it with linux.
          • Sadly...

            ...if you are dealing with a public school then you may be wasting tax dollars.

            If you don't want to learn to manage multiple Linux machines or investigate the equivalents or alternatives to Active Directory then simply say so. Don't try to turn this into a shortcoming for Linux. Many Linux admins do the same things on a daily basis. Some simply use cluster SSH setups which send commands to entire groups of computers at once. There are many solutions out there and the systems come with all the tools to architect a solution that best fits your needs. There is absolutely no need to manage each machine on an individual basis.

            If you think open source people tout things that they haven't actually done then thats your fault...not theirs. If you don't want to do it with Linux thats fine. But don't go around claiming it can't be done.