Will the 'smartbook' be a better Netbook?

At least two companies aim to make smartbooks different enough from laptops--and Netbooks--that consumers will take notice. Think of the device as a large smartphone.

Brooke Crothers
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.
5 min read

The "smartbook" aspires to put the smartphone into the laptop. Will it be able to elevate an Apple iPhone or Motorola Droid-like experience to a larger device, or is it just more marketing mumbo-jumbo?

Two companies are hoping that the smartbook will turn out to be more than just another quickly-forgotten device sales pitch. Qualcomm and Freescale, which are both supplying key silicon technology for the devices, are pushing to make smartbooks different enough from laptops--and Netbooks--that consumers will take notice.

Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs holds the Lenovo smartbook which will appear at CES
Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs holds the Lenovo smartbook, which will appear at CES in January. Qualcomm

The first tangible evidence of smartbooks to come will be seen at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, where Lenovo, among others, is expected to show, if not roll out, smartbook designs.

One pesky question won't go away, however. Why go out of the way to call it a smartbook? Doesn't Netbook suffice? (And it can potentially be very confusing for consumers since both terms have "book" in them.) On one level, the nomenclature choice is simply to counter the Microsoft-Intel Netbook juggernaut: Another Netbook among dozens already on the market won't draw much attention.

But at a deeper level, the two companies are trying to make the smartbook substantively different from a Netbook. Qualcomm sees it, in essence, as a large smartphone, which leaves the outdated Windows desktop experience in the dust. "A Netbook in our view is just a cheap laptop that runs Windows. We see the smartbook cannibalizing the Netbook. It is a connected 3G device that's always on, has data always pushed to the device, and all-day battery life. In other words, the smartphone experience," said Luis Pineda, senior vice president of marketing and product management at Qualcomm CDMA.

Qualcomm's CEO Paul Jacobs proudly showed off a Lenovo smartbook (see photo) at an analyst event earlier this month, saying it was the "thing that I really want to wow you with." The Lenovo design is thinner than a Netbook--in fact, it is about a thin as a typical smartphone--and will be sold through AT&T--not a PC retailer like Best Buy. The Lenovo device uses a Snapdragon chip, which is the first smartphone processor from Qualcomm to hit a speed of 1GHz. Whether it will use Google's Android operating system or another Linux variant is unknown. And pricing has not been revealed, though smartbooks are expected to be inexpensive up front when bought on 2-year contract plans.

So, will the smartphone DNA be enough to make consumers notice? There are skeptics. "You have to step back and say who cares?--asked Jeff Orr, senior analyst, mobile devices, at ABI Research. "Is it meeting different needs in the marketplace? Does it change the price in a way that an audience is going to latch onto?"

Orr says that the smartbook, as proposed today, is challenged to really set itself apart, with the exception of battery life. "Devices with ARM processors tend to have better battery life," he said, referring to the basic chip design that Qualcomm and Freescale use, which compares favorably with Intel Atom processor used in Netbooks from companies like Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Toshiba. But he sees little else that is head-turning enough for consumers to see a striking difference between the smartbook and the Netbook or smaller laptops.

Freescale, not surprisingly, disagrees. At CES, the company will show a design that is radically different than a classic Netbook clamshell design.

"We believe...smartbooks need to look different than Netbooks," said Glen Burchers, director of segment marketing for Freescale. "One thing that we have learned is that when end-users see largish clamshells their first expectation is for a Windows experience."

In Japan, Sharp is selling the NetWalker smartbook, which has a five-inch screen and uses a Freescale ARM processor. "When you see it, it looks like a gadget not like a PC, so you don't have that expectation that it's a Window device," Burchers said.

For the most part, however, the first generation of smartbooks, Burchers admits, will be Netbook-like in design. So, Freescale is looking to the second generation of smartbooks to break away from the traditional laptop.

"The data we're getting from end users is that clamshell does not fit what end users are going to do with these things. It's a younger crowd. Eighty percent Internet access and almost all entertainment-based Internet access," he said.

A Freescale-commissioned design concept: the company believes future smartbooks have to look very different from Netbooks
A Freescale-commissioned design concept: the company believes future smartbooks have to look very different from Netbooks. Freescale

Burchers said that the tablet form factor and sliding keyboard will be two hallmarks of a second generation smartbook. Screen sizes will range between five and seven inches.

And data from ABI Research backs up the theory that consumers expect a different-looking device. While people considering a Netbook are trying to decide between that and a laptop, people considering a smartbook are comparing this to a smartphone purchase, according to Orr. "They're not part of the same consideration set," he said.

One of the big unknowns is what operating systems smartbooks will use. Qualcomm doesn't think the deciding factor will be whether the devices use, for example, Google Android--a truly mobile device operating system--or Linux Ubuntu, a desktop OS. (The Sharp NetWalker uses Ubuntu.)

"In the kind of device we're promoting, the operating system won't be that relevant," said Qualcomm's Pineda. "What will be important is the connected applications based on 3G, the form factor, the battery life," he said.

But here Qualcomm might be mistaken. One of the reasons consumers are now obsessing over the Motorola Droid--a high-end smartphone that packs a sliding keyboard--is because it uses the new Android 2.0 operating system. And many users would never use anything but the iPhone's mobile OS.

Waiting in the wings is Google Chrome--made specifically for Netbooks--but this won't appear in devices for veritable ages in Internet time: the fourth quarter of 2010.

Freescale's Burchers agrees the OS is crucial. "It needs to have a mobile OS. It needs to interact with the user on a moment's notice. Pull it out of its holster and it's ready to go," he said.

Consumer will have a chance to test the smartbook waters next year. Burchers said he sees eight to twelve "high-caliber smartbooks" on retailer shelves in the first quarter of next year.