Smartbooks, netbooks, confusions and disappointments

Are smartbooks going to fizzle like MIDs and UMPCs, take over the market like smartphones and netbooks or just confuse things for a while? Would an Apple tablet change any of that?
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor and  Mary Branscombe, Contributor

Are smartbooks going to fizzle like MIDs and UMPCs, take over the market like smartphones and netbooks or just confuse things for a while? Would an Apple tablet change any of that?

After Microsoft showed off the upcoming HP slate at CES, we tried a few different approaches for prising more details out of HP VP Phil McKinney. He did reveal that the much-missed TC1100 slate might return but he wouldn't be drawn on whether that was what Steve Ballmer showed off (the TC1100 was a business machine and the new slate sounds more a consumer device), on the spec of the slate, the name of the slate, the price of the slate, the date of the slate (beyond 'this year') or whether it would have a TC1100-style clip-on keyboard (it's certainly possible - the Adamo XPS puts everything in the screen, so the keyboard might as well be detachable).

He did tell us something; that the slate is for consuming content - watching video, reading ebooks and nice colourful e-magazines and so on.

So what about the prototype, only-a-concept Android smartbook HP was teasing people with (and equally not discussing the spec of)? McKinney carries both an HP Windows Mobile phone and iPhone; he doesn't like the on-screen iPhone keyboard much and he deals with a substantial amount of email, so not surprisingly he paints his personal view of the smartbook as an email machine. A smartbook would be only a little more to carry than both phones, and the HP prototype gets 20 hours of battery life, or about 14 "if you really bang away on it online". But a smartbook isn't a thinner, lighter netbook, any more than a netbook is a smaller, cheaper notebook.

"There's a challenge, of making sure we do not confuse a consumer," he admitted; "the average consumer who looks at a smartbook and a netbook could get confused. How we look at it is 'what do you choose for what you want to do?'. It's not that different from the problems, the challenge we've we've gone through over the last 24 months. In a way there's been a backlash against netbooks. People bought a netbook, they thought it was a small notebook - but a netbook doesn’t have the same performance. They thought it was a small cheap notebook and that’s not what they got. The industry needs to be careful clear and distinct about what it is you get with a netbook and what you don't, and about what you get with a notebook."

That's not so different from the criticisms of netbooks that Michael Dell made when we spoke to him last year. "I think there is some disenchantment that goes on with the netbook and some user dissatisfaction," he said. "And it goes something like this: you get a netbook and you know, you look at it and go: Wow, this is great – it’s so light, it’s so thin, blah, blah, blah. And after about 36 hours, the screen’s too small and you can’t read it. Give me my 14-inch screen back, give me my 15-inch screen back.   "We found in business, if you give a user - who’s used to the larger screen - that smaller screen, they’re not very happy. You know, we’ve been getting pretty excited about Windows 7 and Office 2010. If you look at those products they kind of tell you, you want more screen area, not less screen area. And if you put that on a netbook, you won’t be real happy."

Netbooks with video accelerators are going to confuse things all over again, but mostly it's clear now that a netbook is a different beast from an ultraportable notebook (and that no, Virginia, there is no such thing as a free lunch). And smartbooks? If McKinney's right they're for things that need a keyboard, like email, but not the Windows OS and your familiar apps. Are there enough cloud apps and Android apps to replace everything that people want to do on a very thin, very light PC?

What smartbooks make me think of is an HTC device from a few years back, the 5" Advantage (sold by T-Mobile as the Amilo). It had a lovely screen, a fabulous magnetic clip-on keyboard that worked as a screen cover - and no apps that took advantage of the screen real estate apart from CoPilot (now looking good on the Dell Mini 10 refresh). I was very happy with Windows Mobile at the time but as soon as I had the bigger screen and the better keyboard I wanted more powerful apps to use on them that gave me the same tools I had on my notebook PC. Smartbooks (and an Apple tablet) could face that same problem of making the Android (or iPhone apps) you like on a small screen seem too basic on a larger one.

And if there are enough apps , the fact that Steven Sinofsky put on a perfect poker face when we asked if Microsoft was really porting the Windows kernel to the ARM platform is very bad news for Microsoft. We'll find out next month what that poker face meant when Microsoft reveals details of Windows Mobile/Windows Phone 7 at Mobile World Congress, with developer news following in March at the MIX conference (assuming Microsoft isn't back-pedalling on that, in which case I'm going to be tempted to read the eulogy for WinMo on the spot). Unless the Chelan update to Windows CE (which Windows Phone will be based on if it follows the traditional Windows Mobile route) offers something truly impressive, smartbooks will have to carve out their own space between phones and netbooks and unless someone can tell us much more clearly what that space is for, there's more confusion ahead.

And if you're saying that the price is the real difference with smartbooks, remember to compare the cost of that always-on connectivity as well as the actual purchase price... Mary

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