smartphones, netbooks…now smartbooks?

At the CES…

On the eve of the annual Consumer Electronics Show, which opens today in Las Vegas, Freescale Semiconductor, among others, has been generating a lot of publicity about a new kind of internet-connected mini-PC to be debuted there–the smartbook.

…the smartbook comes out

Intended to be a cross between a smartphone and a netbook, the smartbook is a multimedia, internet tablet device that has the following features:

–ARM-based microprocessor, manufactured by cellphone-oriented semiconductor companies like Freescale, Qualcomm or Texas Instruments

–Linux/Android operating system, therefore instant boot up

–7″ touchscreen

–4-64 GB internal storage

–10 hour+ battery life

–wi-fi, GPS, optional G3 connectivity

–sub-$200 price point

The target market seems to be teenagers who don’t need wordprocessing or spreadsheet capability or iTunes (according to the Wall Street Journal the ARM processors aren’t powerful enough to handle any of these jobs) but who want to sign up for a 3G cellphone data plan to keep them constantly online.

It sounds like the original netbook idea…

Apart from the lack of a productivity suite, the smartphone sounds a lot like the original netbook idea from Asus–small screen, light, linux os, wi-fi, little internal storage.

…that didn’t work out so well

Although the original Asus machine sold well, it’s important to note that customers quickly voiced their preference for a larger screen, more internal storage and an(y) operating system other than linux.  And they were happy to pay extra to get all that.  Given this experience, why would anyone go back to the original design?

Relevant data from Apple?

There’s also an interesting, if vaguely weird, report from mobile consulting firm Flurry suggesting that sales of the iPod Touch are beginning to outpace sales of the iPhone.

Assuming the analysis proves to be accurate, why would that be?  Is the ATT mobile service so poor that consumers are keeping their traditional cellphones and getting their Apple fix through the iPod Touch?  Or is it that buying a $200 iPod Touch for a teenager or sub-teen and having him use free wi-fi is a much different economic proposition from buying a subsidized $200 iPhone and contracting to spend another $100 a month on a two-year data plan?

My money is on the latter.  In fact, I think that even if someone paid me $1,000 to take a smartbook, the cost of the data plan would make it a bad deal.  Maybe that’s just me, though.  (By the way, if investors make the leap from the Flurry report to the notion that the iPhone market in the US is becoming saturated, the fact that sales of the much-less-lucrative iPod Touch are booming will be cold comfort.)  My instinct is also that the chipmakers sponsoring the smartbook asked their engineers what they could make rather than their marketers what customers would want to buy.

It will be interesting to see if/how the market for smartbooks develops.  One positive note:  I’ve read that an Asus subsidiary is very enthusiastic about them.  And Asus seems to me to have its hand squarely on the pulse of the computer market.

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