Computing

Smartbooks Are Dying On The Vine. That's Dumb.

What if I told you there was an ultralight device that put all the functionality of a powerful tablet into the thinnest, lightest laptop you ever saw? It exists. It could be great. And it’s dying before its time.

In January, Lenovo unveiled that exact device to a warm – if not entirely convinced – reception. It was called Skylight, and it was going to be the torchbearer for a nascent mobile computing category called smartbooks.

Wait, What’s a Smartbook?

Conventional adspeak is that a smartbook is any device that’s part netbook, part smartphone. That’s the problem with adspeak: it doesn’t actually mean anything. A broader but perhaps more accurate definition seems to be: an ARM-based processor in anything other than a phone. Which means, hey, the iPad counts! Whenever Qualcomm or Freescale trumpets the bright future for smartbooks, they’re leaning heavily on projections of consumer spending that includes tablets, including the iPad.

That’s fine! They made up the word; they can define it however they want. But for this discussion, let’s focus on the smartbooks like Skylight: the ones that put the guts of a phone into the body of a netbook.

Mobile devices that balance media, productivity and portability in a way that nothing else does yet.

That’s a smartbook.

What Was Promised

Note that although Skylight got most of the initial press, there are actually two poster children for the smartbook movement. The Compaq AirLife 100 looked like the netbook Apple never designed – until we saw the full specs. While it’s got Qualcomm’s potent Snapdragon processor inside, the 16-bit resistive touch TFT display makes the AirLife pretty much DOA. No stress – it also doesn’t have a US release date yet.

So back to Skylight! Here’s a quick rundown of the planned specs from CES: 10.1-inch screen, 1GHz Snapdragon processor, built-in Wi-Fi and 3G, 8GB internal memory/16GB USB memory stick/2GB online storage, 720p video playback, HDMI out. Weighs less than a kilo. It felt like you could play Frisbee with it.

Skylight wasn’t perfect either, but it filled a niche. The physical keyboard alone gave it an immediate – and important – advantage over tablets. At the very least, AT&T’s backing meant that it would have a fighting chance in the marketplace. And its scheduled April release would have limited the iPad’s powerful head start.

And then… nothing. April came and went. A Lenovo spokesperson quietly speculated that the device would be pushed back to July. And people began to forget all about smartbooks.

Why the Delay?

As a general rule, companies don’t like pointing the finger at partner companies. Working relationships, and all. Lenovo, for example, has said only that they need “a little extra time” to get it right.

Fortunately, ARM marketing VP Ian Drew, in an interview earlier this month with ZDNet UK, wasn’t shy to point out that Adobe had dropped the ball by delaying Flash for mobile devices:

“We thought [smartbooks]would be launched by now, but they’re not,” Drew told ZDNet UK… “I think one reason is to do with software maturity. We’ve seen things like Adobe slip – we’d originally scheduled for something like 2009.”

Considering ARM and Adobe signed their agreement way back in November of 2008, that wasn’t an unreasonable assumption. Instead, Flash 10.1 won’t be optimised for mobile devices in broad release until mid-June.

It’s not just Flash, of course. There’s also the matter of ARM architecture not supporting x86-based operating systems and applications; smartbooks require a new Linux-based OS. For Skylight, that means a custom UI that takes a lot of time to build, test and to get in the hands of developers. For the AirLife 100, that means slapping an unproven skin on top of Android and hoping for the best. Two rocky paths, each with pitfalls.

Fortunately, there’s a terrific solution out there – or at least, there will be. You remember Google’s Chrome OS, don’t you? Both ARM and x86 compatible, incredibly light, runs web apps exclusively. If it sounds perfect for smartbooks, that’s because it is. Or will be, when it’s released sometime later this year.

Clock’s Ticking

Then what’s the big deal? Flash will be optimised for mobile in a month. Chrome OS will be here eventually. And Qualcomm was downright bullish when asked about the state of the smartbook this week:

Qualcomm is striving to help our customers deliver the best possible experience on smartbooks, a new category of devices in which significant innovation is taking place in real-time. The category as a whole continues to gain momentum, with the launch of HP’s Compaq Airlife 100 at Telefonica, Dell Streak’s announcement yesterday, and many other devices in the pipeline. We continue to see strong momentum with Snapdragon (140+ devices in design, 20+ on the market) and the HP and new Dell devices are just the beginning.

So everything’s… great?

For Qualcomm, sure: Snapdragon’s showing up in lots of phones and tablet-type devices like Streak. But we’ve established that the Airlife 100 is no great shakes, and the majority of those 140+ devices in design (along with those on the market) are phones or tablets.

If we’re looking for reasons why more manufacturers aren’t (at least publicly) exploring their smartbook options, we needn’t look much further than iPad. That’s not because everything’s always about Apple. It’s because launching a new product category is both very difficult and very expensive, and Apple’s already done most of that grunt work for ARM-based tablets. Consumers know tablets exist. They know how they work and what they can do. And any company that wants to lead on smartbooks is now going to have to fight on two fronts: against months of iPad indoctrination and for smartbook awareness. It frankly might not be worth it. And the more time that passes, the less likely anyone is to take a smartbook risk.

Why It Matters

It’s not that smartbooks are the perfect device. They’re not! They’ve got inherent strengths and weaknesses, just like tablets and netbooks and notebooks and any other consumer electronics product released in the last eighty years. But they’re unique. They serve a purpose. And they’re being phased out before they were ever in.

Ultimately, this isn’t just a smartbook lamentation. They’ll be for sale at some point, in some incarnation, and if you look hard enough you’ll be able to find them and buy them. Some will be good, some will be bad. Like anything else.

What’s vexing is that it’s starting to look as if the broad consumer market will never really get a chance to decide for itself whether it wanted smartbooks. Third-party delays and a commanding tablet lead decided for them. The smartbook example tells we’re at a point where the industry can only stand one revolutionary device at a time. And frankly, that feels more like a coup.


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