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Dell plans to Linux to expand netbook presence

By Agam Shah
August 13, 2009 05:29 PM ET

IDG News Service - In an effort to expand its Linux offerings, Dell is researching new netbook-type devices and will soon offer netbook Linux operating system upgrades, a company official said on Wednesday.

The company is researching the possibility of offering new Linux-based mobile devices called smartbooks, said Todd Finch, senior product marketing manager for Linux clients, at the OpenSourceWorld conference in San Francisco. The company will also upgrade its Ubuntu Linux operating system for netbooks to the latest version in the next few weeks, he said.

Smartbooks are netbook-type devices that are powered by chips designed by Arm. The devices mostly support the Linux operating system and are designed for those who rely on the Web for most of their computing. Dell couldn't say whether it would ultimately offer a smartbook.

Smartbooks have similar characteristics to netbooks, including cramped keyboards and small screens. No major PC vendor has yet announced an interest in smartbooks, though small vendors are pushing them as an alternative to netbooks, which are mostly based on Intel's Atom chips and come with Microsoft's Windows operating system. Many vendors, including Qualcomm and Freescale, are providing Arm chips for smartbooks that could hit shelves by the end of this year.

Smartbooks with Arm chips have inherent advantages over x86 chips like Atom, such as lower power consumption and longer battery life, Finch said. The chips are also becoming more powerful, as indicated by the growing number of applications on smartphones, he said.

"I think it's natural and reasonable for us to begin looking at them as they begin scaling their processors up," Finch said.

Putting an Arm chip -- mainly found in smartphones -- inside a lightweight PC could provide an early entry point for Dell into the smartphone space, said Jay Chou, research analyst at IDC. Dell has hinted at entering the smartphone area many times, but no product has materialized yet.

While netbooks are the craze, smartbooks are hard to ignore, Chou said. Interest in the device will grow over time because it enables lightweight and low-priced computing devices, which could interest PC makers. Pricing is also a major criteria for buyers, and Linux netbooks are cheaper than their Windows counterparts.

But smartbooks could struggle as Windows remains the dominant OS for netbook-type devices, with a strong software ecosystem around it, Chou said. Smartbooks may have a hard time gaining traction, and much of their future success will depend on the software ecosystem.

The target market for smartbooks will be no different from Linux-based netbooks as they both have the same usage scenario, Dell's Finch said. Like smartbooks, Linux-based netbooks are targeted at those looking for quick access to Web-based applications. "The more [Web-based] applications there are, the better it is for Linux," Finch said.

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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