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6/3/2009
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Smartbooks Seen As Entering Market 'Wasteland'

Vendors behind the devices, such as chipmakers Qualcomm, Nvidia, and Freescale Semiconductor, have lots of great hardware to tout, but no software.

Mobinnova's Elan netbook with Nvidia Tegra
(click image for larger view)
Mobinnova's Elan netbook with Nvidia Tegra

Among the new handhelds highlighted at Computex this week is the "smartbook," a Web browsing mini-computer that fits in size between a smartphone and a netbook. But despite the heavy marketing, the devices could easily end up in the "wasteland" of failed consumer gadgets.

That's because vendors behind the devices, such as chipmakers Qualcomm, Nvidia, and Freescale Semiconductor, have lots of great hardware to tout, but no software. And as Apple has shown with the iPhone and App Store, where more than 35,000 applications are available for the smartphone, software sells hardware.

"Explain to me what's been done with the software [for smartbooks] to make it a compelling experience that I can't get with a netbook or smartphone," Avi Greengart, analyst for Current Analysis, told InformationWeek on Wednesday. "Don't just tell me about the hardware."

And hardware has been the focus so far. At Computex, Nvidia showed off its Tegra computer-on-a-chip and Qualcomm introduced its latest Snapdragon chipset. Both platforms are aimed at devices like smartbooks, which would offer all-day battery life, instant-on capability, integrated GPS, video playback, and Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and mobile broadband connectivity. Executives with Nvidia and Freescale say the target price for the devices would be $100 to $200.

But as analysts see it, smartbooks, which would have a touch screen in place of a built-in keyboard, wouldn't offer anything more than a smartphone, such as those from Apple or Research In Motion, which makes the BlackBerry. In addition, the smartbook would be too big to fit in a pocket and wouldn't have voice communications.

Smartbooks also fall short when compared to a netbook, the hottest-selling category of the PC market today. Smartbooks wouldn't run a full Windows operating system and would be too small for creating documents and other content, something people can do with the larger netbooks, which are available for less than $500.

"As general-purpose devices, smartbooks are in a huge wasteland in terms of consumer demand for devices with screens between 4 inches and 7 inches," Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney said. "There have been lots of products in this category, and they have generally failed."

The kind of devices that could make it in this consumer electronics no-man's land are those that are focused on a particular task. The best example of such a device is Amazon.com's successful Kindle e-book reader, which makes it easy for avid readers to take their books and periodicals with them in a thin, highly portable device. Such devices could also someday have Web browsers or offer e-mail capabilities.

The one device that stands out as an exception in the so-called "tweener" market between smartphones and netbooks is Apple's iPod Touch. The device, which has a 3.5-inch screen, is essentially an iPhone without the voice communications, but has been very successful, with Apple selling more than 12 million units, said Ezra Gottheil, analyst for Technology Business Research.

"There's no reason why that for some users the next size up won't also be popular," Gottheil said.

But it will all come down to innovation, and Apple for years has been rumored to be developing some type of tablet PC that would fit between the iPhone and its smallest MacBook.

"Apple is the type of company that could be reliably counted on to introduce a product that could do something different," Greengart said.


InformationWeek has published an in-depth report on smartphone security. Download the report here (registration required).

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