Netbooks and the Death of x86 Computing

Freescale said Monday it would offer an ARM-based chip that could lead to a $200 Linux-based netbook, offering about twice the amount of usage on a single battery charge as Intel’s Atom processor allows. Freescale’s efforts are nothing new (only AMD has so far stayed above the netbook fray), but it did get me thinking about how Intel’s endless pushing of netbooks has, ironically, helped destroy the hegemony of x86 machines for personal computing.

Instead of being stuck with an x86 chip from Intel or AMD powering your computer, in the coming year you’ll see everything from netbooks to mobile internet devices running on ARM processors. Other machines will offload more processing to the graphics processor. This is great for consumers, who will soon be able to choose a computer that fits their lifestyle, much like a car buyer chooses between a minivan or sports car. Categories will likely evolve around the type of computing jobs someone plans for the machine, input devices, mobility and power requirements.

Our colleagues over at jkOnTheRun don’t believe smartphones are computers, but they’re discounting the fact that computing has moved beyond word processing and spreadsheets to encompass everything from social networking to commerce. As a reporter who spends her days typing more than 2,000 words, I love my full-size keyboard, but there are plenty of people who can survive using phones to access Twitter and their banking software. In the developing world, mobile phones are being used for everything from web access to setting pricing for their livestock. Computing has broadened far beyond the cubicle culture.

I only need to watch my dad, an electrical engineer, manipulate circuits in a CAD-style design program with his mouse all day to realize that a touchscreen device with intensive graphics processing power might be a better tool for his work. Freed from the x86 instruction set, it’s possible that computing in the coming years could become less of a one-size-fits all model and more personalized, while the use of other common processors such as GPUs or ARM-based chips can allow personalization without huge increases in the price of a gadget. The key will be fitting the pieces together in cost-effective products, and making sure users know exactly what their personalized machines can and cannot do.

In addition to more transparent marketing, there needs to be a focus on other input methods such as speech or even gestures, as well as a change in the way software is developed. Software companies have to port their programs to a variety of processors to keep up with the expansion of heterogeneous computing. Witness Adobe’s efforts to get Flash released on PCs (x 86 chips) and mobiles (ARM architecture) at the same time. And Adobe has to address embedded efforts too, especially since electronics makers want to turn the TV into a web-connected device.

So, while chips such as those from Freescale may not end up in a consumer netbook, they could find a home powering a low-cost tablet for inventory managment. Instead of focusing on the ever-shifting definition of netbooks, perhaps we should be thinking about ways computing should and will change to fit our lives.

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