On Monday at the Computex trade show in Taiwan, Qualcomm announced its Snapdragon QSD8650A chipset in order to bring a mix of faster processors and multimedia graphics to mobile devices while preserving a slim form factor and extended battery life.
The question is still whether Snapdragon can combine the benefits of smartphones and netbooks while mitigating their weaknesses, or if it will become another device like MIDs or UMPCs that look great in concept but are overpriced and have very few usage scenarios.
The new Snapdragon chipset gets a 30% CPU boost up to 1.3 GHz, along with a cousin chipset (QSD8672) that offers dual CPUs at 1.5 GHz. These Snapdragon chips are aimed at high-end smartphones as well as a new category of mobile devices that Qualcomm calls "smartbooks" — featuring many of the same functions as netbooks but with the 3G connectivity and battery life of smartphones.
Smartbooks will typically be sold through telecom carriers and will function as mobile broadband devices, similar to the recently unveiled Verizon HP Mini netbook. The only difference would be that smartbooks will be continually connected to the Internet like smartphones, while netbooks still have to "dial" the Internet when the user is ready to connect. Smartbooks will hit the market in Fall 2009.
Luis Pineda, senior vice president at Qualcomm's CDMA division, said:
"Consumers are looking for devices that offer more instantaneous connectivity, greater mobile performance and intuitive usability than ever before. Qualcomm's Snapdragon platform is addressing those needs by enabling smartphones that break new ground in mobile capability, and establishing this new category of smartbooks - devices which deliver a unique mobile user experience different from anything else on the market today."
At Computex, Qualcomm also trotted out demo devices from a variety of OEM partners, including ASUS, HTC, Toshiba, Foxconn, Inventec, and Wistron.
HTC CEO Peter Chou showed a lot of enthusiasm about Snapdragon, as he looks to move his company beyond its smartphone base. Chou said, "HTC has a long history of exceptionally innovative mobile device designs. We feel the Snapdragon platform from Qualcomm holds great promise, and look forward to collaborating on groundbreaking new consumer products that redefine what is possible on a mobile device."
So when Qualcomm and partners talk about innovative mobile hardware, they are talking about netbook-like devices with full keyboards but much thinner and lighter and battery life that lasts all day. The trade-off is that these systems won't run Windows (which has really been the catalyst to netbook popularity). Instead, they run stripped-down versions of Linux, which have basically been a bust on netbooks.
I think there is one scenario in which Linux could be a winning play on smartbooks: use Google Android. As I've said before, Android could get squeezed out in the smartphone market, but it could be a great little OS for netbooks. Smartbooks would be even more of a perfect fit because of the 3G phone connectivity, which Android is already equipped to use. Apparently, Qualcomm and ASUS agree because a prototype of a Snapdragon-powered Eee PC running Android was spotted at Computex.
But, let's take it a step further. What if Qualcomm and Google got together and used Snapdragon to create an ultra-thin smartbook tablet powered by Android, which already features a strong touch-based interface? That device would be a powerful competitor to Apple's rumored tablet netbook. It would also be a strong competitor to the Amazon Kindle, which Google plans to compete with in the e-book market. The device in photo below is one of Qualcomm's prototypes. It shows that the company is definitely thinking about the touchscreen tablet form factor.
The Snapdragon platform has been a long-term R&D project for Qualcomm, which wants to be a leader and not follower as the world adopts smaller, more mobile computing devices. I saw several of Qualcomm's concept devices for smartbooks at private briefings at CES 2008 and CES 2009 and was impressed by the slim form factors but not impressed by the software, which was admittedly still very raw at that point.
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Whether the current smartbook concept that Qualcomm is showing off at Computex can succeed where the MID and the UMPC have failed will likely depend on whether users want beefed up smartphones with greater functionality or if they want to relegate smartphones to highly mobile "check-ins" and switch to full laptops when they want to do serious work. However, a tablet smartbook powered by Android might be the platform's best shot at a hit.
Jason Hiner has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.