Never mind the netbook, here's the smartbook

ARM chip vendors tout emerging category at Computex; Intel says term 'confuses'

If you still blanche at the term "netbook" for being an ungainly piece of vendor-speak, then prepare to be nauseated later this year as "smartbook" supporters start to bang that marketing drum.

What exactly is a smartbook, aside from a term drawn from the the obvious blend of "smartphone" and "netbook"?

First mentioned last November in a speech by a marketing executive from hard drive maker Western Digital, a smartbook will be a computing device similar in size or slightly smaller than today's netbook with smartphone-like features.

Glen Burchers, consumer marketing director at Freescale Semiconductor Inc., says those features could include all-day battery life, instant-on capability and "persistent connectivity," and specs such as an ARM-based chip core, a Linux OS version like Google Inc.'s Android, and, most importantly to consumers, a price point significantly lower than today's netbooks.

"We fully expect $199 devices with 8.9-inch screens, Wi-Fi, full-sized keyboard, 8-hour battery life, 512MB of RAM and 4-8 Gigabytes of [solid-state] storage by the end of the year," Burchers said.

By comparison, the cheapest netbooks based on Intel Corp.'s Atom CPU, such as Hewlett-Packard Co.'s just-announced Mini 110, sell for under $300.

Intel successfully pushed the industry to accept the term "netbook" last year to describe the then-emerging class of mini-notebook computers that, for the first time, were offered at discount, rather than premium, prices.

Intel's Atom CPU and its closely-associated graphics chipset now dominate more than 90% of the netbook market. And the last shadow hanging over the use of the term netbook was lifted on Monday with the announcement by Intel that it had settled the trademark lawsuit brought by handheld computer maker Psion.

As upstarts to Intel's near-monopoly, Freescale and fellow ARM silicon vendor Qualcomm Inc., argue that the term netbook simply does not do justice to the merits ARM-based netbooks will possess versus Intel-based netbooks.

"While "netbook" is not a bad term, it has really come to mean a mini-notebook that uses an x86 chip and runs Windows," Burchers said. "There's a need for a product category that fits between a smartphone and a netbook."

Intel spokesman Bill Calder differs.

"Today we have iPhones, smartphones, mobile internet devices, netbooks, notebooks, and more," Calder said. "We're not sure how adding another new term helps, and, in fact, it may only confuse consumers."

Richard Shim, a PC market analyst with IDC Corp., isn't enchanted with the "smartbook" either.

"It's not very intuitive to me, I don't know what it is," Shim said. "I think it's going to be a challenge and will require some heavy marketing to get people to accept it."

Shim admits he's grown a bit jaded after seeing all of the variants on the basic subnotebook PC that vendors tried unsuccessfully for years to hype until Asus finally struck gold with the Eee netbook in late 2007.

"To be honest, there's been a lot of terms that have been thrown around. Nothing's stuck, so the vendors tweak the terms, tweak the models, and hope they find something that resonates," Shim said.

Philip Solis, an analyst at ABI Research Inc., recognizes the word game the ARM vendors are playing, but says it is justified.

"Some people are naturally going to look at it [cynically]," he said. But "any way you slice it or dice it, the smartbook is a different type of device."

The key, says Solis, is for ARM vendors to deliver on promises of lower prices than Atom netbooks, with or without the aid of bundling deals from telecom operators, as well as make smartbooks thinner and lighter in weight than netbooks.

The latter may not be that difficult, as netbooks have started to become "super-sized" with 12-inch screens and DVD drives.

Interestingly, ARM Holdings PLC, the U.K. designer of the ARM chips (that it licenses to hundreds of manufacturers), has apparently not yet embraced the smartbook term, at least publicly.

At a press conference at the Computex trade show in Taipei on Monday, ARM CEO Warren East predicted that 20% of netbooks next year will ship with ARM chips inside.

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Eric Lai

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