They were supposed to be all the rage by about now, but the smartbook category has failed to materialise while the iPad (without Flash) has. Is this part of the problem? Peggy Albright investigates.
The nascent smartbook industry is nervous these days, and it’s not all because it has jitters about Adobe Flash. It is jittery about its place in the device market and its role with consumers, and that’s an uncomfortable position to be in.
The new device category, which, in name at least, emerged last year as the cellular and ARM industries’ answer to the Intel-run netbook business, has not quite moved into its commercialisation phase despite expectations it would have had numerous products on the market by now.
The latest issue emerged last week after an ARM executive told ZDNet that smartbooks have been held up in part due to issues with Adobe Flash. Certainly the new Flash Player 10.1 that the mobile device industry has been waiting for has taken longer to materialise than expected, which may or may not have played a role in smartbooks’ delayed debut.
But given the battering Adobe Systems has taken from Apple over Flash lately, and considering the smartbook industry’s expectations that the ability of their forthcoming products to run Flash would provide a differentiator for their products, the ARM criticism must have hurt both Adobe and smartbook camps. ARM in fact subsequently tried to exert some damage control by publishing a statement on its website that it has “seen the flawless, full web performance of Flash player 10.1 across a broad range of ARM-based devices.”
Also last week Adobe promised that the 10.1 player will be available in the next few months. And yesterday James Bruce, lead mobile strategist at ARM who heads up his company’s work with Adobe, told TelecomTV that Flash is “absolutely” ready for market.
But smartbook advocates have a lot more to worry about than Flash, as ARM’s Bruce and others will attest.
At its heart, the smartbook concept was invented to create a friendly mobile computer that would serve the interests of mobile carriers by encouraging a subsidy business model, which carriers could use for competitive advantage, and by providing customization and custom content options afforded by a choice of operating systems and other features.
While the smartbook concept meets those requirements, the potential strength of the category is now questioned in the light of the disappointing numbers of netbooks sold through carriers.
But to confuse things further, the smartbook has also been upstaged by the surprising success of the Apple iPad and the tablet category and confused by the impossibility, at this point, of understanding its long-term impact, says Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies. (The iPad, also ARM-processor based, can be considered a smartbook in tablet form.)
“In my talks with carriers, they’re at a stage now where they’re trying to understand the potential of a smartbook versus a tablet,” Bajarin said.
“Ultimately, they’re in the process of trying to figure out what device will sell the most,” he said.
James Bruce at ARM sees that same indecision among manufacturers, who are in the challenging position of having to create winning products for their carrier customers.
The issue is “OEMs trying to decide where consumer demand is,” he said. In addition to the keyboard versus touch screen issue he noted that manufacturers are still making decisions over which OS to use, such as Android, and if it is worth waiting for the web-centric Chrome OS.
Qualcomm, a force in the creation of the smartbook category and a long-time partner with Adobe, says smartbooks are largely on track commercially, considering the newness of the category, the need to shape consumer expectations and establish distribution channels and the retail experience so that customers accept the products when they come out.
“Everybody can say we like to have things yesterday, but we’re actually fairly pleased” with the progress so far, said Terry Yen, vice president of business development in Qualcomm’s chipset division.
“To say a whole category is being held up by one partner I don’t think is fair or accurate,” he said.
But timing is of the essence. When Qualcomm first introduced the “smartbook” label a year ago for products based on its Snapdragon ARM chip, it promised in the fall of 2009. Now it looks like the industry will be lucky to have a few devices out before the 2010 holidays. By then, who knows how much momentum the Apple iPad will have.
The HP Compaq AirLife 100 smartbook, which will launch in Spain through Telefonica on May 17, will now become the first commercial Snapdragon-enabled smartbook. Smartbooks are also forthcoming based on chips from Freescale Semiconductor, Nvidia, Samsung, and Texas Instruments.
The smartbook category does enjoy promise of substantial sales, if vendors get their products out and make a go of it. In February, ABI Research forecast that the market will grow steadily to reach annual shipments of 163 million devices during 2015.
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