Next year's netbooks: Notebook, meet smartphone

Google Android, ARM processors and all-day batteries will transform today's netbook into something completely new.

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Focus on a new OS

The first netbooks used Linux as way of keeping costs down. However, once netbooks became available with Windows pre-installed, Linux proved to be less popular among purchasers.

"A lot of those (Linux) machines were returned," says Avi Greengart, principal analyst for mobile devices for market research firm Current Analysis. A big reason for that, Greengart says, was a lack of familiar applications, such as Microsoft Office, that run on Linux.

"People didn't know what to do with the Linux machines," Greengart says. The result was the overwhelming success of Windows, primarily Windows XP, for netbooks.

Despite this, the new netbooks will use different operating systems. In fact, Snapdragon can't run desktop versions of Windows, although it does run Windows Mobile. Several variations of Linux will run on Snapdragon, but the OS most often linked to the processor is Google's Android, which was initially developed for smartphones.

According to Greengart, the same lack of applications that made Linux problematic for consumers will remain a problem with Android. However, advocates cite Android's focus on multimedia use, Web access and social networking.

Plus, as an operating system developed for smaller devices, Android is simpler to use than Windows, according to advocates. Qualcomm's Frankel, for instance, predicts a number of the new netbooks will have touch-screen capabilities.

Frankel also insists that it's not true that there are no business-like applications available for Linux. "Snapdragon runs Linux, and OpenOffice is a Linux application," he says, referring to the open source Office-compatible suite.

Will Apple play?

One possible competitor in this space -- and, as usual, the one that is attracting high levels of attention -- is Apple. Apple officials, including Steve Jobs, have soundly dissed netbooks as being virtually unusable versions of larger notebooks.

However, some news organizations claim that Apple is hard at work on a device that fills the gap between laptops and the company's iPhone. Nobody knows if this will look like a netbook, although there is speculation that it will be something that might be called a "media pad," perhaps a larger version of the company's popular iPod Touch.

Such a device could create a whole new class of devices, some believe, that could radically change the netbook market. "If they shrink MacBook down a bit, that's not disruptive," Greengart says. "But if they create something completely new, like making the iPod Touch larger, that would be disruptive."

Noury Al-Khaledy, Intel's general manager for netbook and nettop computing, is skeptical of the new ARM-powered netbooks, but he isn't as skeptical about a possible new device from Apple. "An iPod Touch on steroids, if they did a great job, could really capture some market," Al-Khaledy says. "But that's not a netbook competitor." Rather, he said, such a device would be more like a tablet than a smaller notebook.

As always, Apple is not talking about its plans. The company did not return phone calls requesting a comment about a possible netbook.

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