MIDs (mobile Internet devices) may be the channel for Linux to reach mainstream consumers in Asia, according to an analyst.
Ian Lao, senior analyst, mobile technologies at In-Stat told ZDNet Asia in an interview, MIDs are expected to do better in the region than in others, and that Linux will likely grow alongside as a result.
MIDs are distinguished from netbooks by their lack of keyboards. Netbooks are smaller, less powerful versions of traditional notebooks, while MIDs typically feature touch-screens and are handheld. Lao said typically, MIDs range from between four to seven inches, while netbooks are eight to 12 inches.
The analyst said MIDs' popularity in the region could be based on several factors. With the popularity of MIDs in countries like China and Korea, Lao said character-based languages such as Chinese and Korean complement touch-screen interfaces because these can be input more easily with a stylus on the screen, compared to using traditional Western character keyboards.
Another reason is that service providers have been more "forward-thinking" in creating usage models which have tied in data services together with MIDs, enabling them to sell bundled offerings, he said.
Countries such as China and India with their low PC penetration have been thought to provide new opportunities for the mobile Internet, where MIDs would lower the barriers for rural users to get online, based both on the relatively lower price point of MIDs and the lower learning curve of a simpler device.
Chinese MID maker, SmartQ, will release its ARM-based SmartQ 5 device running Ubuntu Linux. Ubuntu, typically found in PCs, provides a full desktop OS, compared with typical mobile Linux OSes that are found on mobile phones. This is touted to give MID users a more full-featured device, compared to the current mobile Internet experience which phones provide.
The SmartQ 5 will be released for 899 yuan (US$131) in China and S$299 (US$199) in Singapore, according to reports.
Ubuntu maker, Canonical, has been eyeing the low-powered, ultra-portable segment to spread Linux. It announced late last year it would work with ARM to port the "full Ubuntu desktop experience" to ARM's v7 architecture.
Lao said: "Linux definitely has a growth path with MIDs."
He said that MIDs, as more passive, "content-consumption devices", fit Linux's role so far on the consumer side, where it has successfully run systems for users looking to consume media, but not create.
Traditional PCs have been used to create and edit content such as movies, while MIDs are not expected to have the power or form factor to do so. Instead, they offer users the ability to surf, but with "light content editing capabilities and even lighter content creation abilities", he explained.
The MID opportunity for chipmakers
According to Forward Concepts data, MID shipment growth is forecast to grow more than tenfold from 305,000 to 39.6 million units between 2008 and 2012. This presents chipmakers with a US$2.6 billion market in 2012, from a US$29 million one in 2008, it predicts.
Intel's Atom processor competes against ARM's energy-sipping chip.
Nick Jacobs, Intel's regional communications manager, Asia-Pacific, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail: "The Asia-Pacific region is an important geography for Intel Atom processor-based MIDs...consumers in [the region] continue to be early-adopters of new technology."
Jacobs added that many of its system manufacturer clients are also based in the region.
He said the one-year-old Atom has crossed 100 designs across MID and netbook segments combined.
Jacobs said: "We welcome ARM's interest in the MID market segment. It further validates users' need to access the Internet on the go and will help accelerate the growth of the category."
ARM did not respond by press time.