Sunday, November 16, 2008

is there a long-term future for the netbook?

Many tech-news websites spent the past couple of weeks betting on AMD introducing a new processor line aimed at the currently red-hot netbook market. For those unfamiliar with the term, a netbook is a class of laptop computer inspired by the OLPC project. In short, a netbook is a laptop computer with a sub 10inch viewing LCD, a solid state hard-drive, limited memory, and a low-end processor. Because of the low system specs for the netbook type computers, most netbooks ship with a Linux distribution or Windows Xp, simply because Vista, and the upcoming Windows 7, won't run. The best known brand of netbook, the Asus EeePC, has a starting price of about $300 on a 7inch screen version.

Much to the shock of many analysts, AMD decided to downplay the netbook market, which resulted in statements like this:
Yeh but AMD does need to enter the market sometime if they wish to keep up, intel is coming out with some nice processors thanks to the work they have done in the netbooks so intel can take the market over entirely if AMD isnt careful
Well, by the same logic, just because your best friend decides to stick his head in an oven pre-heated to 600 degrees, doesn't mean you should join in.

From an objective viewpoint, I'm tossed on the netbook market. On hand I applaud anything that pushes forth Linux as a viable competitor to anything that's spewed out of Redmond Washington. The retail impact of Linux in the netbook market has been huge, with many retailers reporting that Linux based netbooks were taking up 40% or more of their notebook class shipments.

Not that the success of the Linux netbook hasn't had some vendor detractions. Case in point would be a vendor that claimed that returns of their Linux netbook were 400% higher than returns of their Windows Xp netbook. What the vendor didn't mention, and then promptly buried when it was brought up, is that the sales of the Linux netbooks were well over 4 times the sales of the Windows Xp netbooks, actually somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 times to 10 times, which is 800% and 1000% respectively.

On the other hand, I'm not really sure the netbook market has a viable long term value. The basic reality is this. An HP netbook with a 1.6ghz Via C-7 and 2gb of memory will set you back around $650, if you can find one. The slightly less mobile friendly Intel Atom at 1.6ghz and 2gb of memory will be setting you back $700 new, or maybe $680 if you shop around. Granted, the Via system only has a screen size around 8 inches, while the Intel has a screen size around 10inches. Lowering the price abit, lets say to just over $400, at $430, you could pick up an Intel Atom powered Asus EeePC with 1gb of ram and a 10 inch screen.

By comparison, $400 will grab you a 1.8ghz dual core Athlon64 from Acer with a 15 inch screen, albeit with only 1gb of ram.

15 inch laptops with 2gb of ram have a general starting price around $500-$600, although if my money was involved I'd be spending out some extra for the Athlon64 in this Compaq over the lower priced Pentium based computers.

So, realistically, from a laptop operating view, consumers will pay more for less performance when it comes to netbooks. Don't let the Intel brand name fool you on the Atom. As HardOCP found when they ran the Atom, Intel had managed to catch up to Via's previous processors, the C3 and the C7, which weren't exactly speed demons to begin with. By comparison, Via had gone a step further on the new Nano, surpassing the C7. According the HardOCP guys even Microsoft Vista was comfortable to run on the Nano, but they couldn't say that about the Atom.

There are two sides to every story though. When Xbitlabs did a similar comparison, they handed victory to the Atom over the Nano.

From a purely performance point of view, the current crop of Via and Intel mobile processors are pretty much on par with an Athlon4 from 1999/2000. Remember, the Athlon4 was the mobile varient of what became the AthlonXp.

While Linux users often brag about how efficient their Operating System is compared to whatever Redmond is producing at the time, Linux performance really comes down to the applications in use, and like it or not, the current crop of Intel and Via processors for mobile devices are perfectly capable of running most common Linux applications without a single hitch. So while the Nano and Atom processors won't be entering into the Top 500 list of Supercomputer processors, they are more than adequate enough for everyday use.

The real big problem is whether or not the battery life that the Via and Intel mobile systems offer is enough to make up for the loss of performance, loss of screen area, and the price tag difference, against a standard laptop.

The product question is complicated by the emergence of more mobile devices that are well suited to mobile computing. The two leaders of the mobile computing convergence are of course Apple with the Iphone, and Google with Android, both of which offer many of the computing capabilities normally found in laptops.

Then there are products that aren't designed specifically for mobile computing, but handle some aspects such as gaming and internet access quite well. The two leaders there consist of Nintendo with the DSi and DS platforms, followed by Sony with the Playstation Portable and if you can actually find it in the wild, the Sony Mylo.

Speaking as a gamer, I have both a DS and a PSP, and I also have a Cellphone. Most of the time, I'm carrying one of the gaming platforms along with my cellphone anywhere I go, and it's not the PSP. So of course I'm very interested in the upcoming DSi, which with the integrated Opera Browser, should make surfing at hotspots a bit easier. It's not to say that I'm not interested in a netbook, but if I know I'm going to be needing an x86 computer where-ever I'm going, I'd much rather be toting something with a little horsepower.

The mobile market is made even more complex by the number of competitors involved. In the desktop computing segment there are only two players. Intel and AMD. If you want to get technical, you could say that IBM plays in the desktop market, but Sony blows that chance every chance they get. And yes, I'm fussing about Sony not having the balls to simply sell, ship, and update the PS3 as a Linux Desktop computer.

In the mobile market though, there actually is quite a bit of processor activity. Processor designs like ARM, as implemented in Marvell's (formerly Intel) Xscale processor, are quite common in mobile devices. The MIPS architecture also has a wide range of uses in routers, telecommunications equipment, and cell phones. Even though Apple kicked Power to the curb, the architecture is used in all 3 current major gaming consoles, as well as many other embedded devices, including mobile communications devices.

The mobile market simply isn't open to everybody though. Even companies with a rich portfolio of genuine patented hardware inventions can go under, such as Transmeta. So merely having a good, or even the best architecture, doesn't mean that a company can be profitable in the mobile market.

Intel is one of the few hardware companies than can sink a few million dollars into a dead-end research, well, okay, a few billion dollars if you want to stop and look at Itanium for a minute, but anyways. Intel has the money to invest in the mobile market in a meaningful way.

However, most of the other companies involved in the mobile market, don't have plans or production lines spread out very far beyond that. Case in point is Via, which has slowly withdrawn from offering desktop computer parts and chipsets for AMD and Intel platforms.

AMD, unfortunately doesn't have the cash available to chase after every market Intel goes into. That means that AMD has to pick their battles and do the best they can with their resources.

Even with the blazing success of Netbooks today, Intel has a large problem that as the Atom processors improve, the Atom processors will begin to cut into Core2 processors.

Intel also has a large problem that Ubuntu will now officially support a Ubuntu distro on an ARM processor architecture. Imagine the implications of Dell offering an ARM based netbook with Ubuntu. Running Linux, it would be just as fast as an Atom, and have better power management. If I was in Intel's shoes, I'd start throwing F.U.D. about ARM. Oh wait, Intel's already doing that.

The basic reality is, the netbook class of laptops has a lot of incidental, indirect, and direct competition, from a wide range of devices. To the average business user, stuff like the MacBook Air is the way to go. Ultralight weight laptop without sacrificing screen real-estate. Which is where AMD said they would be putting their money. Into bringing stuff like 13" ultra-lightweight notebooks down from $1800, to half the price.

AMD has decided to go after a market where there is a clear difference between simply a laptop, and a glorified cell phone.

Right off hand, that's a much better use of their money, than to go after netbooks.
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