Where is the Linux 'smartbook'?

Smartbook delays are due to a lack of momentum and product clarity, say analysts. A major impediment is the lack of a standard operating system.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
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.
Brooke Crothers
2 min read

The smartbook has yet to emerge from pre-product purgatory, though a couple of high-profile devices are due soon.

But first, let's try to define the smartbook. By some definitions it is simply a Netbook that runs Linux and uses processors based on a design from U.K.-based ARM, as opposed to Windows software and Intel chips, respectively. By another definition, it is all of the above but also an always-on, always-connected device, just like a smartphone. The latter definition is the one we'll use here because it's the original definition as provided by Qualcomm--a major smartbook player--and the closest match to most first-generation smartbooks. (Another definition includes tablets but we'll leave that out of this discussion.)

Indeed, smartbooks remain a murky product category because no major device maker has announced one yet in the U.S.--at least as defined above. And on Wednesday, Ian Drew, the chief marketing officer at ARM, expressed dismay at the lack of products, according to a report from ZDNet UK. That report cites, among other reasons for the delays, the current lack of Adobe Flash optimization for smartbook operating systems.

The HP Compaq AirLife, which runs the Android OS and packs a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, appears on HP's U.S. support page but is not available in the U.S. Hewlett-Packard

So far, Lenovo is the only major device maker on record that is ready to deliver a product in the U.S. Its Skylight, originally due in April, will go on sale in the U.S. via AT&T in July, and this month in China, according to a Lenovo spokeswoman.

Though Hewlett-Packard's Compaq AirLife is visible on HP's U.S. support site, there's no indication when or if HP will release the smartbook in the U.S.. (Availability is, however, expected in Europe and Latin America.)

So what's going on? One major impediment is the lack of a standard operating system. Though Google's Android has been shown running on some smartbooks, the OS was originally designed for smartphones. And Google put a damper on any real momentum for Android smartbooks by announcing last year that the Chrome OS was being developed specifically for larger devices like smartbooks and tablets.

That's a problem for device makers looking to bring out products now because Chrome will not be available until later this year. Asus is just one example of a company flummoxed by the Android versus Chrome conundrum, according to an analyst. "When Android first came out, Asus came back and said we're going to put this on a Netbook. Then Chrome was announced. What that did was cause them to rethink Android," said Jeff Orr, an analyst at ABI Research. And this undoubtably is causing others to rethink Android. "I'm either hearing a lot of silence or uncertainty," Orr added.

"Definitely smartbooks are delayed into the market," said James Bruce, a mobile marketing manager at ARM in the U.S. "People are trying to work out what the market really needs, whether it be tablets or another device. They're trying to come up with devices that the consumer will actually buy instead of simply trying to re-create the Windows Netbook experience," he said.