Monday, August 31, 2009

Netbooks, We Hardly Knew Ye: Here Come Smartbooks

With a webinar for MIT coming up at the end of September, I finally accepted that my aging laptop was overdue for an upgrade to keep up with the increasing need to be video-literate online. In the process of ordering up my new unit, I had an opportunity to order a nearly-free netbook along with my new Dell Latitude. Looked interesting for a moment, but I decided to pass and to wait it out a while longer for something with a little more power and battery life. That something is not just an idle dream: smartbooks are coming to town in a few months, and they promise to do for mobile computing what PCs did for desktop computing in the 1990s.

A smartbook is in essence a small laptop optimized to use a new generation of CPU chips such as Qualcomm's Snapdragon and Nvidia's Tegra that offer days of battery life and high-quality performance for video, Web browsing and online office applications. Combined with operating systems such as Windows CE and Google's forthcoming Chrome OS, smartbooks - and smart phones based on the same chips - are poised to eclipse inexpensive (and not very powerful) netbooks as do-everything mobile devices for people who are content to do most everything computer-oriented via the Web. Given the billions of people who have yet to use PCs on a regular basis and the increased demand for on-the-go lifestyles that rarely settle down to a desktop unit anymore, inexpensive smartbooks are likely to take off in a big way over the next few years.

That's not all bad news for some of the incumbent interests. Microsoft is well positioned with both its CE operating system and a wealth of improving online Web-based office productivity tools to take full advantage of the capabilities of smartbooks. While this means that some of its legacy desktop software may go by the wayside in the process, it's likely that the online versions of these favorites will be powerful enough to satisfy the lion's share of people who use them. This spells sorely needed growth for Microsoft, even as it comes to terms with the positioning of Google as a more direct competitor in this space via its Chrome OS operating system being launched next year. Smartbooks are also good news for most books publishers and video producers, as they are big enough and powerful enough to support their needs for better on-the-go display systems.

Will smartbooks be the spark that catches fire in many unwired parts of the world to open up the Web to billions of people who have yet to experience it? Many mobile phones equipped with these improved chips are more likely to be key in the Web's further expansion, but smartbooks are definitely a very important step forward in making Web access an instant-on service that will make browsing a more universal tool in more venues than ever before. Yes, mobile apps will still be important, but will face far stiffer competition from cloud-based content services that work perfectly fine in smartbooks and a new generation of smart phones that will service people more effectively overall. So I'll wait a few months before picking up a smartbook, but by then, with 4G networks starting to roll out, I am sure that it will be well worth the wait.
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