Windows, Netbook. Android, smartbook? Hmm

The terms Netbook and smartbook have been the object of legal wrangling. Germany-based Smartbook, in defending its trademark, offers a lesson in gratuitous naming schemes.

As a German company defends the "Smartbook" trademark, its actions underscore what happens when companies gratuitously heap new category monikers on top of existing--and perfectly adequate--naming schemes.

Smartbook's Heaven Puro is, in fact, a Netbook.
Smartbook's Heaven Puro is, in fact, a Netbook. Smartbook

Question: what do Netbooks and smartbooks have in common? Besides looking pretty much the same to consumers (small, lightweight clamshell laptops), both terms have been the object of legal wrangling by companies claiming trademark infringement.

First, the term Netbook came under attack from Psion Teklogix . That dispute with Intel was settled in June. Now Germany-based Smartbook is claiming that Qualcomm's use of the term smartbook infringes on the eponymous company's trademark. "Smartbook AG sets a high value on its protected trademarks, which are being used as company symbols and product marks for years," the company said in a statement sent to CNET.

The San Diego, Calif.-based cell phone chip giant had this to say in response: "Qualcomm is surprised by the claims being made by Smartbook AG...given that Qualcomm does not claim, and has never claimed, to own the term 'smartbook,' which it believes is a descriptive and generic term. The term is used by a number of companies, consumers, and industry commentators to describe a class of devices that combine attributes of smartphones and Netbooks that will be enabled by various technology companies, including Qualcomm."

Qualcomm has been promoting smartbooks for months on its Web site, and Freescale Semiconductor has been doing the same, though on a smaller scale. Both companies make, in effect, the silicon engines that power these devices.

And Qualcomm is now starting to crank up its promotion of the smartbook, as Lenovo prepares to roll out one of the first smartbooks at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

So the question arises: why call them smartbooks at all? Qualcomm believes that the devices it is promoting are different enough--as described above--from Netbooks that the moniker is warranted. But the reality is that by the time smartbooks hit the market in force (if they indeed do), there will be little really to set them apart from Netbooks.

For proof, look no further than the local Verizon or AT&T store. Verizon now carries Windows-Intel-based Netbooks from Hewlett-Packard with 3G modems built in. The sales pitch: connect to the Internet anywhere at 3G speeds--similar to what Qualcomm is preaching for smartbooks. Yes, smartbooks will have a different operating system (Android/Linux), but to consumers, this won't mean that they are different. At a Verizon store, it's just another Netbook.

And the Smartbook case is a microcosm of this whole problem. The German company offers a line of laptops that, in the United States, are called Netbooks. The systems promoted on its Web site offer the usual fare of Intel Atom processors and Windows software--except that the company calls them Smartbooks.

Confused? Well, the confusion may go away on its own when everyone just keeps it simple, calling a spade a spade: a Netbook is a Netbook is a Netbook.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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