Microsoft Sets Stage for Netbook vs. Smartbook World

At the Computex event in Taiwan this week, Microsoft presented its vision of a mobile computing world that will include "consumer Internet devices" (CIDs) alongside netbooks.

Steve Guggenheimer, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Original Equipment Manufacturer division, depicted two worlds of mobile consumer devices in a keynote address at the event on Wednesday. However, it's not clear how separate the CID market and the netbook markets will be. Microsoft may face stiff competition as mobile telecommunications companies ramp up their efforts on the CID front.

Netbooks are lower-end laptop-like computers that run on Windows or Linux operating systems and have limited hardware capabilities, including screens of about 10.2 inches in width. CIDs, in contrast, are mobile computer devices sometimes known as "smartbooks," a term coined by Qualcomm, which makes the Snapdragon chipset for mobile 3G devices. Snapdragon incorporates an ARM processor in the chipset and uses open source Linux-based operating systems, not Windows.

Guggenheimer said that netbooks -- or "small notebook PCs" in Microsoft's preferred terminology -- have evolved from their initial use. A year ago, netbooks were perceived primarily as Internet connection devices in a smaller laptop-like footprint. Now, however, people expect netbooks to work like PC desktops and laptops. CIDs, in contrast, will be consumer digital lifestyle devices, Guggenheim contended, with uses such as portable media players and mobile navigation devices.

"This next generation of smart, connected, service-oriented devices will give people mobile access to a rich set of media and information," Guggenheimer said concerning CIDs, according to a Microsoft press release. The announcement described CIDs as falling "somewhere between smartphones and the full-featured small notebook PCs running Windows today."

Developers working on CIDs can use "Microsoft technologies like Windows Embedded CE, Visual Studio, Silverlight and Expression Blend," Guggenheimer added. In addition, CIDs will be able to tap into Microsoft's Windows Live services, as well as Web services from other vendors.

Microsoft's approach may appeal to developers, but the low costs of running Linux in CIDs could prove to be a competitive factor. Most Linux OSes lack the licensing costs of Windows Embedded CE, which is passed on to the consumer with each device sold. A New York Times story pegged the licensing costs of using Windows Embedded CE per device at "$3 to $15, depending on the volume."

Many netbooks currently on the market use Intel's Atom processor and Windows XP Home edition, or they use a Linux-based OS. Netbooks will also be able to run Microsoft's newest OS, Windows 7, which will be released on Oct. 22.  All editions of Windows 7 will be capable of running on a netbook, Microsoft has announced.

The Smartbooks 'Wintel' Alternative
Windows is designed for x86- and x64-based devices. So far, the Windows and Intel combination has dominated the netbooks scene. CIDs, in contrast, may be based on processors designed initially for the mobile operator space, such as ARM, which features lower power consumption and a smaller form factor compared with Intel's Atom chipset.

Microsoft has been collaborating with U.K.-based ARM for more than 10 years. However, the collaboration has been based on the Windows Embedded CE and Windows Mobile operating systems. When asked if Windows 7 might someday work with ARM processors, a Microsoft spokesperson said that the company had "no comment around any future investments in the ARM platform."

"That said, at this time, Windows 7 does not support any ARM architecture. Currently, Windows works on both x86 and x64 platforms, which, thanks to the pervasive PC hardware standard, power the vast majority of the world's laptops and desktops. In the specialized devices space, where ARM is well-suited, we offer the Windows Embedded CE platform," the spokesperson explained.

ARM processors currently support Linux-based OSes for netbooks, including ThunderSoft, Ubuntu and Xandros operating systems. They also support Google's Android OS for mobile devices.

At Computex, Qualcomm's booth featured an Asustek Eee PC netbook running Android on Qualcomm's ARM-based Snapdragon chipset.

The Snapdragon-based Asustek netbook was "thinner and lighter than current Asustek Eee PCs that use Intel Atom microprocessors and run Microsoft Windows XP because the Snapdragon chips require fewer cooling components, such as fans," a PC World report from Computex explained. However, Asustek's Vice Chairman Jonathan Tsang called the technology "not mature" and "not a priority," according to the report.

Linux initially got a strong start on netbooks, but XP Home edition has since taken the lead. Tami Reller, Microsoft's corporate vice president and chief financial officer, noted the change, saying recently that Windows has gone from zero to a "97 percent attach rate" on netbooks.

Linux will have problems regaining its initial lead. A netbook product review published by The Wall Street Journal cited general problems with device connectivity and application compatibility as some major stumbling blocks.

Microsoft may dominate the netbooks OS market for now, but the margins are slim. XP Home edition gets licensed for "less than $15 per netbook," a WSJ story reported. Moreover, company officials have admitted that the popularity of netbooks has eaten into profit margins typically seen from Windows sales. Redmond is still trying to figure out Windows 7 pricing for netbooks.

Mobile Telcos Could Call the Shots
Microsoft may have trouble dominating the market on the CID-smartbooks front. Mobile telcos will have OS options other than Windows Embedded CE or Windows Mobile. Google may have the clout to push its Android OS for smartbooks, unlike earlier Linux vendors.

OEMs also appear to have other plans than just deploying Windows for netbooks.

For example, Acer plans to produce Aspire One nettops that will run on Moblin Linux, IDG News Service reported. Acer also will make desktops and laptops using that OS. Moblin will provide a cost savings for Acer over using Windows XP, according to a story.

Moblin was developed as a Linux Foundation project, and it's favored by Intel. Some reports describe Moblin 2.0 as a Windows OS "rival."

Google's Android OS also isn't sitting still. It may eventually run on x86-based hardware.

"We understand various groups around the world are in the process of porting Android to the x86 architecture," a spokesperson for VIA Technologies said by e-mail. The company makes the VIA Nano U-Series for light notebooks and some netbooks. The VIA Nano U-Series also supports the x86 architecture and can run Unix/Linux and Windows OSes (XP, Vista and Windows 7).

The need to define netbooks versus smartbooks suggests a potential industry rift in the making.

A spokesperson for ARM said that smartbooks are designed for "entertainment, productivity and social networking" using a device that's thinner and with a longer battery life than a netbook or a notebook.

"Netbooks, on the other hand, are increasingly being perceived as low-cost, de-featured notebooks designed to achieve a reduced price point," the ARM spokesperson added via e-mail.

Qualcomm's Senior Vice President Luis Pineda seemed to agree with that definition. In an interview with DigiTimes (subscription required), Pineda said netbooks are Intel-based Windows devices that are less capable than a notebook. Smartbooks based on Qualcomm's Snapdragon chipset will run Linux, not Windows.

"Windows Mobile has a limitation on screen size and resolution and Windows 7 is not supported at all," Pineda explained.