Cellphones are growing up, and they just might pose a new threat to the Intel-Microsoft based personal computers.
Coming by the end of this year are a new crop of small inexpensive notebook computers, known as netbooks, based on the ARM microprocessor design and running one of several versions of Linux, including perhaps Google’s Android cellphone operating system.
ARM dominates the market for the chips in cellphones, but until now its designs have not been widely used for computers. But now the difference between an expensive phone and a cheap laptop is size rather than power.
Netbooks have been a rapidly growing category of computers, mainly because they are more portable and typically cost $400 or less. So far they have been mostly based on Intel’s Atom chip, which uses its X86 instruction set and thus can run Windows. Some manufacturers, including ASUS and Hewlett-Packard have also offered versions of their netbooks that run Linux, but these have not yet been popular in the market.
Some argue this will change as the combination of an ARM processor and Linux may allow netbooks to be sold for $200 or less.
Earlier this week, Freescale, the chip company spun out of Motorola, announced a new high end chip, based on the latest ARM designs specifically for netbooks. This follows a similar announcement by Qualcomm last month. ARM, by the way, designs the guts of microprocessors that are incorporated into chips built by other companies.
Glen Burchers, the marketing director for Freescale’s consumer segment, ticked off three potential advantages for ARM-based netbooks.
The ARM machine should have an 8-hour battery life, compared with two hours for an Intel-based netbook, he said, because the ARM chip has been designed from the beginning to be skimpy with its power use. And since the chip uses far less power, it generates far less heat, and thus it can fit into a far smaller case than a chip that needs a fan or a metal heat sink to cool it down. Freescale figures that its chips can go into a netbook that is only 0.6 inches thick. (The HP Mini 1000 netbook is 1 inch thick.)
And then there is price. Freescale, he says, figures its chip will cost about $15 each when bought in large quantities, with about $5 of other chips that support the processor; the Linux operating system, of course, is free. The company estimates that a computer maker would need to spend $50 to $60 on an Intel Atom, related chips, and Windows.
Mr. Burchers said that the company figures that the $200 netbooks will not have a hard drive, but will have 4 gigabytes to 8 gigabytes of flash memory. The devices will mainly be used, he figures, by people to surf the Internet. A few, more expensive models will be able to connect to cellular data networks, but mainly they will be aimed at young people who connect through Wi-Fi networks.
Mr. Burchers also talked about some interesting research the company did trying to figure out how people might use netbooks. The company gave existing Linux-based netbooks to a group of 14 to 20 year olds who already have both a smartphone and a computer. This rather intensely digital group was happy to have yet another gizmo with which they could check their Facebook pages, yet they didn’t slow down their use of their other devices. After all, Freescale found these teenagers are online an average of five hours a day.
No manufacturers have announced they are building netbooks using the chips, but Freescale was showing a prototype manufactured by Pegatron, a Taiwanese affiliate of ASUS, that makes notebooks for a number of brands. Still, ARM-based netbooks could be in the market in six months, Mr. Burchers said.
What about Linux, which many users found hard to use and not compatible with all the programs they want to run?
“There has not been a substantial incentive for a user to choose Linux before,” Mr. Burchers answered. “If you say a netbook is almost half the thinness, the battery life is four times, and it costs 100 bucks less, but I have to use Linux, that is an incentive.”
Linux, he added, is improving. “This has been the first generation that is for non-geeks.” Freescale is working with Linux makers to make them easier to use. The chip is designed to be used with Linux versions made by Phoenix Technologies, Xandros, and Canonical, which makes Ubuntu. Freescale added support for Android to its plans this year because computer makers said they see a market for it.
“The Google and the Android brand are substantial brands that people feel comfortable with,” he said. Moreover, some computer makers think that Google’s market for Android applications might draw people to netbooks as Apple’s App store helps sell iPhones. Realistically, Mr. Burchers said, Android won’t be ready for release on netbooks as soon as some of the other versions of Linux.
Google interestingly says it is neither encouraging nor discouraging companies from building devices other than cellphones with Android. It is not explicitly writing the extensions that are needed for features that aren’t on cellphones — like mouse drivers. But since Android is open source, chip makers or computer manufacturers are free to modify the system as they need. Google says that Android was intended from the start to shrink to more simple cellphones and to expand to more computer-like devices.
While Google is low key about the prospect of a ARM-based computers, it has got to be cheering on the development. The search company has long defined Microsoft as its enemy No. 1. So anything that undercuts the dominance — and profit stream — from Windows, whether Android or anything else, suits Google’s purposes.