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A Look at what's next for Netbooks

Feb 25 2009, 10:00am CST | by , in News | Notebooks and PCs

A Look at what's next for Netbooks
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The netbook market is booming and from all appearances, things will just keep getting better for the small, portable, and low cost machines. Yesterday I mentioned that Dell says it is doing very well with its Ubuntu Linux-based Mini 9 netbook. That got me to wondering what was next for the netbook market.

Asus has been talking about possibly adding Android to a netbook and I think this is more of a when will they add Android as an OS than an if. I also don’t think Asus will be the only company that offers Android on a netbook. I believe that we will see most companies bring Android to the netbook platform. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Google come out with a version of Android that is specifically tweaked for the netbook market.

Many consumers are enamored with Google and its offerings and Android with the Google name attached to it will sound much better to a consumer looking for a netbook running something other than Windows than Ubuntu or another form of Linux.

I am also hoping that we will see some innovation in netbook hardware. However, I don’t expect any of that innovation to come from Intel or its main rival AMD. The reason I don’t expect Intel to offer any innovative hardware as far as CPUs is that the company already owns the netbook market with its N280 and N270 Atom parts. Intel also doesn't want the CPUs in a netbook to get too powerful at the risk of an even larger migration of users moving to the low margin netbook line.

AMD reps at CES this year told me that they are not planning to enter into the netbook market. They will offer a new portable platform, but the world's number two chipmaker is aiming that at the ultraportable notebook market. In other words the platform will be for 12-inch and larger systems that sell for more money. AMD is ceding the netbook market to Intel and other makers.

The only real chance for innovation in netbook processors that I see is from VIA. VIA has a chance to steal some significant market share away from Intel and AMD if the firm will produce a netbook processor that provides the low power requirements netbooks require and offers more performance than the Atom at the same time. VIA doesn't have to worry about cannibalizing its other market share since it really has no presence to speak of in the notebook market.

Acer took the same route with aggressive pricing of its Aspire One and marketing of the system, which ultimately ended up as the best selling netbook on the market. Acer had a very small percentage of the notebook market before the netbook revolution and had little fear of cannibalizing its other product sales.

NVIDIA has already announced that its next Ion platform will support VIA processors and that will only give new and more powerful products from VIA more ammo to battle Intel in the netbook segment. I am still waiting for the Ion platform to show up in netbooks.

I believe that a source at Asus hit the nail on the head at CES concerning the Ion platform and why I didn’t see many netbooks using it (and we still don’t). The source said that the Ion platform sounded good, but it would likely add in the area of $150 to the price of a netbook. Netbooks are often chosen by consumers based on price and adding another $150 to the price of a $300 netbook pushes the system into the notebook price range. Notebook makers like Asus may not think that a consumer will be willing to pay another $150 for a netbook simply to say it has a better GPU and can play 1080p video, and they may be right.

I don’t care as much if my netbook can play HD video as I do that it has the power to do my typically mobile work. The new N280 and its accompanying chipset will decode 720p video and on the small 10-inch screens the typical netbook uses the chances of actually seeing any difference in video quality are slim. The only difference would come in systems that can output that video to a big screen, and even then, many viewers won't see a difference in video quality.

In short, for innovation in 2009 in the netbook market, I don't look to the big players in the hardware industry. We won’t see some breathtaking new CPU from Intel or AMD that sets the netbook market on fire. That sort of innovation will come from smaller players who have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Keep your eye on the VIA's and Acers of the netbook world. That is where the real magic will happen.

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