Which 'Book' for You?Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Notebook, netbook, smartbook, smartphone terminal, smartphone? In the coming months we will have more choices than ever. Today, many people carry both a phone and a notebook computer. Most of the notebooks are fully-capable computer systems with a lot of memory, fast processors, and at least Wi-Fi built in. More and more are also available with Bluetooth and wide-area wireless built in or through the simple addition of a USB wireless modem.
Notebooks generally weigh 3-6 pounds, have 12 to 16-inch screens, and battery life in the 3-hour range. They all seem to have about the same feature set including a DVD/CD drive, USB ports, large hard drives, and lots of memory—they are basically a desktop with a battery attached. I currently carry a Dell notebook with built-in Wi-Fi and Verizon Wireless wide-area broadband. Since I use a synchronization program, when I leave my office, my notebook’s hard drive contains a complete duplicate copy of my desktop computer’s drive and any changes I make in the field are automatically synchronized with my desktop when I return to the office and plug my notebook into the network.
I usually take my notebook with me when I travel, but if I am only going for a day or two and won’t have the time to write an article or the need to create PowerPoint slides, I tend to leave it at home and rely on my BlackBerry on such a short trip. However, when I will be gone longer, or when traveling to the east coast or overseas, I always take my notebook with me to ensure I have everything I need and that if I have an opportunity, I can write an article or work on a report for a client. I have to pay for my BlackBerry Service as well as my high-speed wide-area wireless access so the cost is higher than I would like it to be, but I don’t usually have to connect to a hotel’s Internet service for $9-$10 per night (in the U.S.), and this seems to work out fine with my travel schedule.
We are about to have many more choices of what we will carry and use in the future. First, smartphones are becoming smarter and more capable all the time, witness the Celio Redfly Mobile Companion that is a very small laptop-like device that uses my smartphone for the processor, memory, and applications. The device itself is simply a screen and a keyboard, and it connects to my smartphone via a USB cable. The smartphone not only serves as the workings of the computer, its battery is charged at the same time. In the 1990s and early 2000s, there were attempts to build this type of device. I think this is great and the timing is right—Celio won’t have this market to itself for very long.
Next up is netbooks, which some say are merely dumbed-downed notebooks with less storage and memory. This may be true of some systems on the market, but others are actually smaller, lighter notebooks with a hard drive and enough memory to be classified as a notebook. The netbook segment of the market is confusing at the moment—there are instant-on systems usually running Linux, other systems are running Microsoft XP, and their size and shape vary widely.
Some netbooks are in a tablet form factor and some a clamshell, some have 4 to 6-inch screens and tiny keyboards, and some have 10-inch screens and a keyboard that is about 90% normal size. The very word “netbook” is confusing and they are being made by all of the major notebook vendors as well as some lesser-known companies. AT&T is selling two netbooks built by Acer at Radio Shacks—one has a 10.1-inch screen and the other has an 8.9-inch screen. The Lenovo IdeaPad, an Acer unit without wireless, and a Samsung netbook are also available at Radio Shack. Verizon Wireless is selling an HP Netbook with embedded worldwide broadband capabilities.
The larger AT&T Acer is 1.14 inches high (thin) by 9.8 by 6.7 inches and weighs in at 2.2 pounds. It has 1 GB of memory (expandable to 1.5 GB), runs an Intel Atom processor, has a 160-GB hard drive, includes Windows XP and, of course, Wi-Fi and AT&T’s wireless broadband service. It is heavily discounted if you purchase it with two years of AT&T data service. The battery life appears to be about 3 hours, which is about the same as my notebook, and it is certainly thinner, lighter, and less expensive.
Intel is betting a lot on these netbooks—first that many of them come to market with WiMAX instead of HSPA or EV-DO, as well as with the Intel Atom Processor. These devices are supposed to drive the demand for WiMAX services, have solid state drives instead of hard drives, provide a little better battery life and, according to Intel and others, rely more heavily on applications and data that are stored in the cloud as opposed to on the device. For me, this would mean that instead of syncing my desktop to my notebook, I would sync it to a data service in the cloud. Then when I needed to access something, I could fire up my netbook, connect to a LAN or wireless network, and have full access to my information, knowing that it would also be synched to my desktop either in real time or the next time I turned it on. I, for one, am not ready to trust the cloud with my data and applications, nor am I ready to trust that I will always have a connection to the cloud regardless of where I am—especially when I want to work on something while on a plane. I will have to think ahead about what I will need and store it on my netbook so it will be available during a flight since I will not be able to connect to the cloud during most flights.
But Wait, There’s More!
Notebooks and netbooks are coming to us from the computer side of the aisle—they are computers first with wireless embedded into them. But Qualcomm recently entered the fray with its Snapdragon ARM processor, and we will be seeing some premium smartphones and smartbooks from various wireless device manufactures in the near future. What is a smartbook?
According to the Qualcomm smartbook website (http://www.hellosmartbook.com/index.html), smartbooks are wirelessly-enabled handheld, tablet, and clamshell devices that will run the Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. The clamshell devices will be less than 20 mm thick (0.787 inches) with all-day battery life and week-long standby time. They will include an intuitive interface and an easy-to-use touch screen, they will be optimized for web applications, with high-resolution displays, and a customizable operating system. Qualcomm also touts these devices as always-on and always-connected, which is a nice goal, but the reality is that we still live in an always-on and most-of-the-time connected world.
Other features include 3D graphics (great for gamers), HD video, GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and wide-area broadband, and they will be instant-on—a great feature for those who don’t like to wait for a typical notebook computer to boot up. There isn’t any indication yet of when we will see the first smartbooks in the marketplace, but rumors are that there will be some by the end of this year. We will have to wait to see how compatible they will be with existing Microsoft applications and files, how they will synchronize with existing data, and whether they will use solid state drives, which will increase battery life but limit onboard storage.
This is not a one-device type of world and we will have a great number of choices. Many of us already carry more than one wirelessly enabled device. I carry four including my phone, BlackBerry, notebook, and Kindle. With the exception of the Kindle, each one requires a separate contract for wireless service. The idea Clearwire is floating of a per-person or per-family contract with no limit on devices makes more and more sense as we anticipate the diversity of devices coming our way. One advantage to the Redfly is that it uses the smartphone for its “brains” so it doesn’t require yet another wireless contract.
I suspect that I will be trying out many of these types of products over the next several months, and will even try some that will require me to keep my information in the cloud (but you can be sure I will have it backed up in real time somewhere else). I don’t know what combination of devices I will settle on, and I am probably not the person you would want in a focus group to try to determine which categories will do best in the U.S. and world markets (which could end up being very different). However, I will be trying several in each class and letting you know what I do and don’t like about them.
At the end of the day, I have to wonder about two things. First, will the iPhone and other more powerful smartphones cut into sales of these devices? Then there is the question of how many will end up sporting WiMAX. My guess is that the preferred devices will be in the HSPA/EVDO/LTE markets and that WiMAX networks will find that they don’t have the breadth and depth of the other products coming our way.
What will you carry? Would you be more likely to own more devices if you only had to pay one service fee regardless of which device you used, or if you used different devices at different times for different types of work, play, or travel? There are many unanswered questions and many choices, but one thing is certain: Someone needs to take a long, hard look at today’s pricing models if any of these new devices are to be highly successful.
Andrew M. Seybold