Isn’t it strange that despite all the singing and dancing by companies like Nvidia, ARM, Qualcomm and others, the ‘smart’ books (or social netbooks as I often call them to avoid legal issues here in Germany) haven’t yet reached the market. ARM highlight delays with Flash and there are probably many other excuses but the biggest one is the iPad which is one of the smartest devices around. It has single-handedly frozen the market for other ‘smart devices’ and scared manufacturers into thinking about how good their devices really are. I expect smart ‘books’ (clamshell) to bounce back quickly though and over time, to become a serious solution for all parts of the hand-held computing market. They will sit alongside netbooks and tablets in a new ‘social’ part of the market which will form primarily in western countries such as U.S.A, UK, Germany, Spain, Italy, Australia, Japan and other, relatively tech-rich countries. All of the devices will sit in a similar price category but there are major differences that a customer will need to consider. This article takes a closer look at ‘smart’ and highlights the differences between 3 device categories. At the end of the article you’ll also find an interactive tool that will help to make my point a bit clearer.
If you want to skip the article and go straight to choosing between three category-defining devices , click here to go to the Mobile Device Chooser.
‘Smart’ is a term being used in the mobile computing industry to describe an always-on, cellular-data-capable device with an advanced, mobile-focused operating system. It brings the idea of prescience, notifications, touch, application store, content, mobility and fun together to provide the customer with an attractive mix of location, entertainment, work and communication functionality. I talk about this in detail in my article â€“ Social Netbooks and ARMs lock-in opportunity.
Smart devices will impact netbook sales and design.
I believe that ‘smart’ is the biggest threat to the low cost, lightweight notebook. The risk doesn’t just apply where people, mainly in the western world, are looking for a second ‘gadget’ or ‘casual use’ purchase, it also applies to the developing countries where cost, energy availability and cellular communications are important. One could argue that today, much of the productivity element of netbooks would be lost by moving to a ‘smart’ device but that only applies until the operating systems and application stores provide developers the opportunity to bring productivity applications to these new smart platforms. That change has already started to happen and it’s arguable that ‘productivity’ operations like email and web-reading have made the transition already. Online services like Google Docs get better and better every month and even high-end applications like video and image editing are possible. It’s only a matter of finding and using a different application suite and over time, as the handheld operating system reaches more and more users, the problem of learning-curve and familiarity fades away leaving Windows 7 as the big, boring desktop operating system. Netbooks will have to evolve and Intel have already taken this into consideration by offering Moorestown, Oaktrail, MeeGo and Android. Microsoft, on the other hand, don’t appear to have taken ‘smart’ into consideration with their desktop operating systems leaving the un-launched Windows Phone 7 to fill the gap.
Consider these points.
- For most netbook customers, ‘smart’ books will win on a spec-spec comparison with features like ’10 day battery life’ ‘always connected’ ‘instant on’ ‘sub 1KG’ ‘touchscreen’ ‘gps’ and ‘3G’. There’s also a small price advantage with smaller motherboards and lower casing, cooling and memory requirements.
- With carrier support, there’s a ton of marketing that can be done around the price. ‘Free with contract’ is a trick that might work again with low-cost data contracts. Multi-SIM technology (one contract, services shared across multiple devices) is a more likely candidate, at least in Europe.
- It appears that more money is going into the mobile operating system in terms of development and marketing and because of their small size and freshness the mobile OS is likely to develop with new features faster than a desktop operating system with legacy support.
- Selling content through a smart device on a carrier network is easier for customers, network providers and content owner than on a Windows 7 device.
- Sales of smartphones are outstripping laptops and the margin is growing.
Consider the negatives
On the other hand, smart devices use relatively new operating systems and need to improve in a number of areas
- Printing â€“ Uninteresting for the casual user, critical for the productive user.
- USB support â€“ Again, critical for a productive user
- VGA output
- Data transfer via as many methods as possible
- Bluetooth feature support
- Security features
- Productivity apps / Mature apps
Categorty 1 : Smart Tablets
Pads / tablets / slates running on mobile operating systems are getting a disproportionate amount of attention right now despite the lack of products in the market. The media coverage that these devices are getting is also not consistent with the amount of potential buyers. If prices for quality versions stay near the $500 mark and the operating systems don’t mature quickly then we’re looking at one product with sales of around 5m units in a year. As operating systems mature and prices come down to ‘gift’ levels though, numbers could be impressive and if some of the above issues are fixed, smart tablets could form an important, modular part of anyones computing toolkit. The iPad, Dell Streak and Archos 5 are example products.
Tablet-style devices are not just for content consumption. Sharing of existing content, creating and modifying images, short and instant messages, presence, voice and voice control, video editing and content sorting are all creative applications that don’t need a full keyboard and as the size of pad reaches handheld levels, creating occasional emails, notes, annotations, captions and comments also becomes possible. The only really issue with pads and creating content is large amounts of text. Given time and practice, on screen keyboards work and if necessary docking stations and add-on keyboards completely solve the problem.
Category 2: Keyboard + Tablet = smart book.
A variant on the smart tablet or ‘pad’ would be the smart book – a clamshell device that looks like a small notebook or netbook but contains a mobile OS running on an ‘always-on’ processing platform. These device solve the issue of alphanumeric input and lean towards a more productive and table-top style of operation but in most examples we’ve seen so far they don’t include the productivity applications. Despite the mobile operating systems in these alternative notebook devices, touch isn’t expected to be implemented in all of them. Convertible and slider-keyboard devices also sit in this keyboarded category.
Category 3: Netbooks
Netbooks need no introduction. Global sales numbers are above 40M per year now and there’s a clear need for a low-cost, ‘just enough’, small laptop. Touch, social networking and long battery life are all becoming a feature of netbooks but there are areas where they don’t lead. Location, always-on, touch user interfaces (if required – convertible netbooks can benefit) and weight often can’t compete with the ‘smart’ devices.
UMPCPortal follows ultra mobile PC’s and that means lightweight, handheld devices running Windows or other full desktop operating systems. It’s a niche market that has existed for many years and despite our love (and our readers love) for it, we don’t see it growing to anywhere near the numbers that could be seen in the above categories. For this article we’re leaving out Windows XP/7 tablets and Windows XP/7 UMPCs.
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