Are Smartbooks off to the Wrong Start Already?

lenovosmartbook2It’s far too early to condemn a product market when shipping products don’t exist, but frankly, I’m worried. Yesterday saw what’s likely the first smartbook, although the device could be a design prototype. It’s made by Lenovo, powered by Qualcomm and will be sold by AT&T. I’m fine with those three pieces of the puzzle, but not so much with the device itself. From the picture and the expectations being set on future devices in this class, I see a huge problem — it’s an underpowered netbook with no gain in portability. The device reminds me of an OLPC running a fresher version of Linux.

Again, I’ll temper my thoughts with the fact that the device shown yesterday won’t officially be introduced until the Consumer Electronics Show in January. If I were involved in the project, I’d use my time between now and then to revamp the form factor. Why? Based on what we know now, the smartbook will offer a high-definition quality screen. While the exact resolution is unknown, “high definition” means at least 720 vertical lines of resolution. I’d guess the device will see 1280 x 720, which is fine — it allows for decent viewing of web pages and is far less limiting than the 1024 x 600 displays found on netbooks. But based on that resolution and the picture of the device, it sure looks like the first smartbook will have a screen size of nearly 10 inches. That’s far too big for what I’d consider a successful smartbook, for a few reasons.
First, the screen size dictates the overall device size. You could argue that the keyboard actually does this, but display panels are pretty standard, so it’s more likely that a screen is chosen first and then a keyboard is designed to fit in such a device. So if this smartbook has a 10″ display, it should offer a keyboard comparable to most of today’s netbooks. That’s all well and good, but the overall device size won’t be different enough from a netbook to make size a differentiator. I expect the smartbook to be thinner, but early reports are that it will come with a large battery, so who knows? It could be just as thick and heavy as a netbook.

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Related research from GigaOM Pro: "The Future of Netbooks"

About that battery — why would a large battery be needed if the smartbook is powered by an ARM-based Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU? Doesn’t the ARM platform use less power than the Intel Atom used in netbooks? Sure it does, but the bigger power culprit is the display. And that’s why using a netbook-sized display isn’t the way to go for a smartbook. Essentially, it looks like this first smartbook entry will be too much like a netbook in terms of form factor. But it won’t offer the netbook’s benefit of x86 compatibility for applications.
So what benefit will it really provide? One could argue price, but remember that the smartbook will be sold through AT&T. That means it’s subsidized and you’re on the hook for $1,440 in data plan bills over two years — unless the data plan model changes with a smartbook to make it cheaper for the customer each month. I doubt that, but I’ll leave the door open for just such a change. It wouldn’t surprise me to see such a device to be free up-front. But subsidized netbooks can be had for $200 or so — so will a free smartbook entice sales? I don’t think so in most cases when the $200 alternative offers more.
Ultimately, it comes down to this — what are the use cases for a smartbook that make it different from a smartphone or a netbook? The types of activities you’d use a smartbook for are really the same as what you’d use either a smartphone or netbook for, so it’s a matter of where and how you’d use this device. And those definitions should be dictating the form factor. Let’s use the smartphone as an example:

  • Easy to use anywhere while sitting or standing
  • Has always-on connectivity so there’s no location limitations
  • Limited by screen size and keyboard usability
  • Generally runs (on and in sleep) for a full day or more on a single charge
  • Users can wake device and begin using almost instantly with little hit to battery life in sleep mode
  • Can be put in a pocket

Looking at the same six factors for a netbook:

  • Easier to use in more places than a laptop, but not as unlimited in terms of location than a smartphone
  • Connectivity is often limited by Wi-Fi locations, although there are always-on connection options available
  • More enjoyable experience than a smartphone due to larger screen, higher resolution and larger keyboard
  • Eight hours of run time is considered good
  • Can be put into sleep, but not as instant for wake and use
  • Not pocketable

For smartbooks to be successful, they need to offer the best of both worlds here and although I’m a fan of the smartbook concept, that’s going to be a tough road to hoe. To offer the runtime of a smartphone but still be highly portable, a netbook-sized display isn’t the answer. And if the devices are going to have a netbook-sized display or form factor, what’s the reason to pick a smartbook over a netbook? Price alone isn’t going to do it on large scale. Connectivity can help, but that’s an option in many netbooks as well. Perhaps adding cellular voice capability for use with a headset might help, but I’m on the fence there.
I’ve said this before, but I’l reiterate it now because it’s timely: if I were a smartbook designer, I’d be looking at the Sony VAIO P for inspiration.
Due to the wide footprint, it offers a touch-typable keyboard, but uses a clamshell design with an 8″ display so you’ll have a better visual experience than a smaller smartphone. You could tuck it into a large jacket pocket, so it’s more portable than a netbook. The smaller screen — I’d even consider making such a device with a six or seven inch screen — won’t use as much juice which could let the unit run as long as a smartphone. In such a form factor, there actually would be benefit over the two markets the device would sit between. Would it sell? That I don’t know, but I’d be inclined to buy one. Would I buy the device that we saw yesterday? I don’t yet see a reason to — do you?