CES this year has focused largely on mobile devices. NVidia has shown off their incredibly powerful Tegra 2, Imagination Technologies announced their new PowerVR SGX 545, and even Intel has honored Silverthorne’s memory by showing off Moorestown, their new mobile platform. I’ll have features on these technologies after CES, but the point is this: these chips can fit into your cellphones, but are FAR more powerful than full featured computers from only 7 or 8 years ago. In terms of graphics, these platforms have more advanced graphics processors than my desktop that I’m using to publish these posts – my computer is only 4 years old by the way. So we can see that this is the mobile revolution that we have waited for. The computer is moving from desktop to laptop to netbook to tablet to phone. 2009 gave us innovation in chips that has allowed us to place real power in phones, but 2010 is taking that concept a little bit bigger. Moorestown, Tegra 2, and SGX 545 aren’t meant for phones. They’re meant to kill netbooks.
What is a netbook really? Intel defined the term in its most recent incarnation as a laptop lacking an optical drive, using an Atom processor, and with a screen ranging from 7-10 inches. However, these specs are not mandatory and overtime the restrictions have loosened. We now have netbooks ranging from 7 inches to 12 inches, using Atom platforms or NVidia Ion. Some have massive 250GB hard drives or 8GB SSDs. The fact of the matter is that the netbook’s original purpose – to concentrate on the internet for productivity – has been lost in the turbulent reality of capitalism. As netbooks have become the bread and butter of OEMs, everyone has tried to make their product stand out from the crowd. Whether adding more storage, larger and brighter screens, or adding faster graphics; it’s all done to turn a race to the bottom into a standard spec war. Prices have slowly inched up to real laptop territory instead of staying in the sub-$300 range like intended. Netbooks are really just a name now and not so much a philosophy. As I have lamented before, netbooks still suffer from anemic performance with the Atom platform though this should not matter if the original philosophy of a netbook doesn’t call for powerful hardware. Because a netbook still is a full computer, consumers demand that it is capable of all the tasks that computers today can perform. We now see the terrible situation of the netbook - it’s hardware is not intended for the role it is now being demanded for. This has led to the adoption of stronger graphics or accelerator chips to improve performance, but it all goes against the design of a netbook – to provide access to the internet and offer basic productivity. Having Windows XP doesn’t help either, as this OS is so ubiquitous with full featured computing. And placing Windows 7 in netbooks as some are doing, is not going to help the situation any more.
And this is why smartbooks and tablets will win where netbooks will fail. A netbook runs on hardware that is for all intents and purposes standard PC hardware. Smartbooks will run on mobile hardware, built from the ground up for small form factors, extremely low power consumption, and more recently optimized for media content and internet access. While these platforms – PowerVR, Cortex-A9, Tegra 2 et al. are full featured hardware, they are not meant to resemble standard PC hardware. Consumers will not demand the same level of power from a smartbook as they would a netbook. Much of it is psychological – we would not expect the same performance out of an 8-inch laptop running customized versions of linux as we would a netbook, nor do we expect to do the same level of productivity on a tablet as on a netbook. This will enable smartbooks and tablets to carry out their mission without the woes and complaints of netbooks. These devices, using these powerful platforms, can finally do what netbooks were intended for – internet productivity and media entertainment – without the stigma that it should do more.
What are smartbooks exactly? Well, they’re a lot like netbooks but with a few differences. They are smaller in screen size and thickness, though they run custom OS to protect visual fidelity. They have full keyboards, though possibly smaller than current netbooks. The key is that they use mobile hardware and not Atom processors. Tablets are similar to smart books in that they have more custom OS derivatives, possibly larger 10 inch screens, probably multi-touch, and maybe a physical keyboard. Tablets are more optimized for media playback and ease of use. They will both be viable alternatives to netbooks and hopefully compete against each other – driving hardware makers to maintain a competitive edge.
Back when I made my first post, an editorial on the Apple Tablet, I mentioned how such a device seemed pointless in a world where netbooks were so plentiful and offered stronger hardware. After CES though, it has become clear that mobile hardware is accelerating at a pace where, given the proper software and not just shoe-horning Windows, mobile devices are going to be as powerful and versatile as Netbooks were. The removal of Windows is key. While it can be implemented on Atom and Moorestown, most tablets and smartbooks will run on ARM variants like Tegra 2, an architecture Windows is not compatible with. This can and I think will lead to a renaissance of Linux mobile variants and open source operating systems like Android, Symbian or Chrome OS. By building devices wholly devoted to strictly internet productivity and media, hardware makers are freed from the demands from consumers for more and more power. Of course they will get more powerful, but power will not be the achilles heel.
Indeed this is the beauty of the smartbook/tablet revolution. All these mobile platforms have copious amounts of power for their intended use. Tegra 2 can seamlessly render 1080p video, even though no mobile device will have a 1080p screen for the foreseeable future. It is this overflowing power that will provide tablets a greater room to grow before the systems are stretched to their limits. Having such powerful platforms while limiting their abilities (or perceived abilities) would seem counter intuitive to some. Why should we artificially limit the capability of powerful devices? But it is not so much limiting their power, as guiding it. By no longer unleashing a platform to an existing and varied software base such as Windows, where Netbooks struggle to run numerous programs even though technically compatible; it will foster and call on developers to be far more proactive in building custom applications for these devices. Effectively, it is asking developers to apply the same model used on the iPhone and Android, but bringing it to a larger scale. Having a custom OS, possibly built from open source components, but using custom developed SDKs to insure that software can leverage hardware in the most efficient way possible instead of recycling in-optimal operating systems…. again like Windows.
It will not be easy however. The fact is that general OEMs are going to stay with netbooks for the foreseeable future. Pine Trail is too fresh to ignore it and netbooks will continue to be important for the bottom line. However, with powerful players, conventions will change. And I think, now more than ever, that Apple can be the leader. CES was proof of concept that smartbooks and tablets can be practical. Now Apple must maximize the possibilities. For Intel, it doesn’t really matter. Either way they win with Pine Trail or Moorestown, which are both from the same architecture. PowerVR will get plenty of use in many devices, and NVidia just needs a strong device to prove the power of Tegra 2 – probably in the next Nintendo DS.
Netbooks moved us closer to a world where the internet is all we need, but smart books and tablets will finish the transition. Prove me wrong.