163 Million Smartbooks In 2015 — And None With x86

The definition of a smartbook is about as rigid as the ocean tide — in the morning it can mean one type of device, but by evening, a totally different computing tool can qualify. So when I hear predictions that navigate the smartbook sea, I often wonder exactly what types of devices are included. ABI Research just outed one set of predictions and call for 163 million smartbooks to be sold in 2015. This reiterates ABI’s thesis last month that ARM will overtake x86 in ultra-mobile devices by 2013.

As usual, the nebulous definitions of “always connected” and “subset of MIDs and netbooks” apply to the smartbook target. But there are also two very specific defining attributes in the ABI forecast: smartbooks run on a mobile operating system — still semi-nebulous — and they don’t use x86 processors. Did I just hear a virtual “uh oh” at Intel (s intc), or was that a passing sea breeze?

I’m not going to try and tell you what a “smartbook” is, but I’m inclined to agree with ABI on the non-x86 point. That doesn’t mean you won’t find “Intel inside” the smartbooks of tomorrow, but I believe that they’ll be relegated to a distant second when compared to how many smartbooks run on the ARM platform. This thought coincides with “the perfect storm” I see for ARM and why I predicted early on that Google’s Chrome OS devices would run on an ARM processor. When talking about the reasons for this shift to ARM in December, I used Chrome OS as an example:

Google’s Chrome OS is all about a browser and nothing but a browser. Multi-tasking is accomplished within tabs, but still in the browser. The web is your client and all of your apps are in the cloud. Will you really need the extra “oomph” of an x86 processor on this type of device at the end of 2010? For most web tasks, probably not. In fact, if you’re using the browser on a Palm Pre (s palm), Apple iPhone 3GS, Motorola Droid (s mot) or Nokia N900, ARM is already powering your browser. And for streaming video with either Adobe’s Flash (s adbe) or inline with HTML5, a next-generation ARM processor ought to work well enough by then.

When I wrote that bit, I didn’t even have something that I have today — a Google Nexus One powered by Qualcomm’s (s qcom) latest 1 GHz Snapdragon CPU. After using the handset daily for the past six weeks, I believe in my December statement even more. For most of the light duty tasks people need on a smartphone, the ARM processors of today can do the job, and do it well for hours. And it’s not just me that thinks so. Most of the new tablets and smartbooks out of the Consumer Electronics Show and Mobile World Congress were running on new ARM chips from Nvidia (s nvda), Freescale, Marvell (s mrvl) and Texas Instruments (s txn) in addition to Qualcomm. The other elephant in the room is Apple’s iPad with it’s custom A4 chip (s aapl), which just happens to be based on the ARM architecture, as well. To say that the ARM ship is starting to sail into the mainstream would be an understatement from where I stand.

Is there a place for x86 in the smartbook sector? There is for some and Intel has made great strides with their Atom chipset by offering a solid combination of performance with power efficiency. However, there’s more work to do there before x86 and ARM on are equal footing. And then there’s that “mobile operating system” phrase that ABI snuck into their definition. What qualifies as a mobile OS is subject to debate, but when most of us think x86, we think desktop OS and not mobile OS. Perhaps that’s why Intel recently merged its Moblin project with Nokia’s Maemo platform to create MeeGo. Building the chips for a smartphone is one thing — but also providing a mobile friendly and energy efficient operating system is as difficult as swimming against the tide.

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