In Challenge for Emerging Netbook Market, Qualcomm Moves From Smart Phones to Smartbooks

9/8/09Follow @bvbigelow

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Intel, saying, “Everybody sees it as a conflict. But it’s more ‘coop-petition’ because we work with them on this thing called Gobi, which is a way of wirelessly enabling Intel architecture.”

Yet as Jacobs pointed out, Qualcomm and Intel also are approaching the netbook/smartbook market from different directions. With its experience in developing capabilities in the wireless network, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chip has been described as a beefed-up cell phone chip that runs at 1GHz. Snapdragon-powered smartbooks also include 3G mobile broadband, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi capabilities. In contrast, industry watchers describe Intel as working down from high-powered processors and hard-disk storage, so Intel-based netbooks can store more data internally (as opposed to streaming it from servers in the cloud). Analyst Andrew Seybold says Intel also is counting heavily on netbooks to drive WiMAX sales for its technology allies, such as Clearwire. In short, Qualcomm is expanding from its 3G smartphones to smartbooks, while Intel’s netbook strategy is basically taking a laptop and making it smaller.

So far, Qualcomm’s smartbook rollout appears to still be on schedule. Jacobs told analysts during a July 22 conference call that Toshiba’s Snapdragon-enabled TG01, which he described as “a really high-end smartphone,” was launched in May in several markets across Europe. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon-powered “smartbook phones” will start to come out during the last three months of this year. “We still remain confident in those launches,” Jacobs said. “We do expect that market to develop over time paced primarily by how the software gets developed across the various players. There are a number of traditional software providers in the cellular space that are trying to pull that user experience up into this new class of devices.”

The primary inhibiting factor for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon-based smartbook platform is a lack of Microsoft Windows support, according to Kumar, the Collins Stewart analyst. “It’s a real Catch-22,” Kumar says. Microsoft “wants to see the sales volume before they commit.” So far, Kumar says the global netbook market is a fraction of the market for notebook PCs, with Chinese netbook makers Acer and Asus currently sharing three-fourths of the business.

“If you look out 12 months, Microsoft has said they’ll provide support for ARM (the chip technology used in Snapdragon and nearly all mobile phones) with Windows 7 Mobile Version in 2010,” Kumar says. He calls that a “halfway step in terms of eventually providing full support for ARM architecture.” If Microsoft expands its software support for ARM-based smartbooks, Kumar says it would represent a significant crack in the “Wintel alliance.”

Until Microsoft comes on board, Qualcomm’s smartbook will use Linux as its operating system. Luis Pineda, a senior vice president of marketing for Qualcomm CDMA Technologies, is on the record as saying the operating system isn’t as big a deal as having a well-designed home screen and touch screen.

Of course, it will be up to consumers to decide whether smartbooks or netbooks will become the high-end item on Christmas wish lists. But smartbooks are going to offer one arguably must-have feature that many netbooks lack—they will be “instant on,” like smartphones. Unlike netbooks running Windows XP, which requires the system to boot up, smartbooks running Qualcomm’s chipset and Linux operating systems will allow instant access to users.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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