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Summary:

It’s far too early to condemn a product market when shipping products don’t exist, but frankly, I’m worried. Yesterday saw what’s likely the first smartbook, although the device could be a design prototype. It’s made by Lenovo, powered by Qualcomm and will be sold by AT&T. […]

lenovosmartbook2It’s far too early to condemn a product market when shipping products don’t exist, but frankly, I’m worried. Yesterday saw what’s likely the first smartbook, although the device could be a design prototype. It’s made by Lenovo, powered by Qualcomm and will be sold by AT&T. I’m fine with those three pieces of the puzzle, but not so much with the device itself. From the picture and the expectations being set on future devices in this class, I see a huge problem — it’s an underpowered netbook with no gain in portability. The device reminds me of an OLPC running a fresher version of Linux.

Again, I’ll temper my thoughts with the fact that the device shown yesterday won’t officially be introduced until the Consumer Electronics Show in January. If I were involved in the project, I’d use my time between now and then to revamp the form factor. Why? Based on what we know now, the smartbook will offer a high-definition quality screen. While the exact resolution is unknown, “high definition” means at least 720 vertical lines of resolution. I’d guess the device will see 1280 x 720, which is fine — it allows for decent viewing of web pages and is far less limiting than the 1024 x 600 displays found on netbooks. But based on that resolution and the picture of the device, it sure looks like the first smartbook will have a screen size of nearly 10 inches. That’s far too big for what I’d consider a successful smartbook, for a few reasons.

First, the screen size dictates the overall device size. You could argue that the keyboard actually does this, but display panels are pretty standard, so it’s more likely that a screen is chosen first and then a keyboard is designed to fit in such a device. So if this smartbook has a 10″ display, it should offer a keyboard comparable to most of today’s netbooks. That’s all well and good, but the overall device size won’t be different enough from a netbook to make size a differentiator. I expect the smartbook to be thinner, but early reports are that it will come with a large battery, so who knows? It could be just as thick and heavy as a netbook.

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Related research from GigaOM Pro: "The Future of Netbooks"

About that battery — why would a large battery be needed if the smartbook is powered by an ARM-based Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU? Doesn’t the ARM platform use less power than the Intel Atom used in netbooks? Sure it does, but the bigger power culprit is the display. And that’s why using a netbook-sized display isn’t the way to go for a smartbook. Essentially, it looks like this first smartbook entry will be too much like a netbook in terms of form factor. But it won’t offer the netbook’s benefit of x86 compatibility for applications.

So what benefit will it really provide? One could argue price, but remember that the smartbook will be sold through AT&T. That means it’s subsidized and you’re on the hook for $1,440 in data plan bills over two years — unless the data plan model changes with a smartbook to make it cheaper for the customer each month. I doubt that, but I’ll leave the door open for just such a change. It wouldn’t surprise me to see such a device to be free up-front. But subsidized netbooks can be had for $200 or so — so will a free smartbook entice sales? I don’t think so in most cases when the $200 alternative offers more.

Ultimately, it comes down to this — what are the use cases for a smartbook that make it different from a smartphone or a netbook? The types of activities you’d use a smartbook for are really the same as what you’d use either a smartphone or netbook for, so it’s a matter of where and how you’d use this device. And those definitions should be dictating the form factor. Let’s use the smartphone as an example:

  • Easy to use anywhere while sitting or standing
  • Has always-on connectivity so there’s no location limitations
  • Limited by screen size and keyboard usability
  • Generally runs (on and in sleep) for a full day or more on a single charge
  • Users can wake device and begin using almost instantly with little hit to battery life in sleep mode
  • Can be put in a pocket

Looking at the same six factors for a netbook:

  • Easier to use in more places than a laptop, but not as unlimited in terms of location than a smartphone
  • Connectivity is often limited by Wi-Fi locations, although there are always-on connection options available
  • More enjoyable experience than a smartphone due to larger screen, higher resolution and larger keyboard
  • Eight hours of run time is considered good
  • Can be put into sleep, but not as instant for wake and use
  • Not pocketable

For smartbooks to be successful, they need to offer the best of both worlds here and although I’m a fan of the smartbook concept, that’s going to be a tough road to hoe. To offer the runtime of a smartphone but still be highly portable, a netbook-sized display isn’t the answer. And if the devices are going to have a netbook-sized display or form factor, what’s the reason to pick a smartbook over a netbook? Price alone isn’t going to do it on large scale. Connectivity can help, but that’s an option in many netbooks as well. Perhaps adding cellular voice capability for use with a headset might help, but I’m on the fence there.

I’ve said this before, but I’l reiterate it now because it’s timely: if I were a smartbook designer, I’d be looking at the Sony VAIO P for inspiration.

sony-vaio-p

Due to the wide footprint, it offers a touch-typable keyboard, but uses a clamshell design with an 8″ display so you’ll have a better visual experience than a smaller smartphone. You could tuck it into a large jacket pocket, so it’s more portable than a netbook. The smaller screen — I’d even consider making such a device with a six or seven inch screen — won’t use as much juice which could let the unit run as long as a smartphone. In such a form factor, there actually would be benefit over the two markets the device would sit between. Would it sell? That I don’t know, but I’d be inclined to buy one. Would I buy the device that we saw yesterday? I don’t yet see a reason to — do you?

  1. Dead on Kevin. The smartbook is supposed to hit the niche between smartphone and netbook. Hell, I thought that’s why they called the category “smartbook” in the first place. I hope Qualcomm haven’t screwed the pooch already. I had high hopes for the smartbook.

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  2. I’m in agreement Kevin. When I think smartbook, I think of something along the lines of the old NEC MobilePro 700 Series PDA form factor. Or as you say, the Sony P. Always on. Always Connected

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  3. Add my agreement. Definitely need a pocketable device. And light. The Sony device is really perfect for my thinking. I want a smartbook that allows me to access all my cloud stuff, does my media with excellence and allows me to use it as a mobile phone with a wired or bluetooth connection. I was very drawn to UMPCs but they had the wrong radio.

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  4. Dead right Kevin!

    I would go even further and squash off the whole “netbook-as-something-between-pocketable-and-laptop” altogether. As laptops are getting cheaper, netbook will more and more be another name for “low-cost-small-notebook”.

    What’s much more interesting for me is the Celio’s Redfly concept. Even if it’s badly implemented, the idea is pretty good, as more and more the only missing piece of a smartphone will be the intermittent need of a bigger keyboard & screen.

    I can stop dreaming of Apple and Nokia to burry the tablet/booklet dead end, and instead make a sub-100$, wireless, ultra-light and ultra-thin 10 to 13” touch screen / keyboard combo.

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  5. Smartbooks will be a niche device, but I hope at least something good comes out of them. I agree, it needs to be like the Sony P or NEC Mobile Pro.

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  6. I really think aswell that smartbooks should be pocketable. They could be what MIDs failed to be: cheap device that could be used on the go. Bigger than smartphone, smaller than netbook.

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  7. I liked this reasoning so much I went ahead and grabbed a Vaio P off ebay. :) Unfortunately with none of the benefits of a smartbook, since it will be running a power-hungry (ha!) Atom chip, but…

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  8. I basically agree, but I would encourage manufacturers to continue experimenting and provide a wide variety of devices without being overly concerned about what arbitrary category they fit into (i.e. smartphone vs. smartbook vs. netbook). There is and will continue to be a lot of overlap and ultimately the market will decide which devices are winners. Not every device has to be a blockbuster success to be useful to a lot of people. Look at the Nokia N series tablets, which are great devices and fill a real niche for me and many other people.

    In my world I have decided that I need three devices for when I’m on the move:

    1) Always with me – fit in any pocket. This is currently a Palm Pre. Primary requirement is small size/weight and excellent phone service, but these days it also has to include a good Web browser and e-mail/contacts integration with Google Apps. The Pre is perfect, but the gadget guy in me wants to try an Android device next year.

    2) Frequently with me – fit in a big pocket. Currently this is the Nokia N800/N810 device because it gives me a bigger screen for easier reading than on the Pre, but it also gives me a real computer for limited development and server support access. This is also my music device because the battery seems to last forever (most of an 18-hour flight to India). I wouldn’t pay for an extra cell phone/data plan for this device since I can tether to my Pre in an emergency when I don’t have Wi-Fi. This is the next device upgrade because my coat pockets will actually support something an inch or two bigger, and there have been a lot of advances since the Nokia tablets came out.

    3) Backpack or other bag required. This is a real notebook that goes with me on trips (coffee shop, lunch, meetings, and all away from home travel) but my limit is 5 lbs and 15″ screen because I frequently schlep it through airports. Currently a MacBook.

    A lot of other devices have been tempting me, especially the Kindle since I read a lot of newspapers and books. But then I think about where, when and how I would carry each new thing and I realize that I don’t want anything else in my backpack so I would probably end up leaving it home.

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  9. I think Kevin is spot on, and I would add that the VAIO P form is what the smartbook needs to be. There’s no point making a netbook size, and yet a smartbook still needs a usable keyboard.

    Without the keyboard, then a smartphone is good enough. Saves you from needing another device, and one with dedicated 3G connectivity to boot.

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  10. Kevin and James (and everyone else) are right about the Vaio P form factor being a necessity. I am, however, going to remember Kevin’s quote describing a netbook as being “thick and heavy” ;)

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