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Smartbook Playing Field Wide Open for Linux

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January 4, 2010, 8:48 am

There's been a lot of technology predictions for the upcoming year, with Linux playing a big part in the future direction of tech. Fortunately, we won't have to wait long to see how some of those predictions will play out: it's just a mere three more days until the start of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

Even before the 2010 CES show starts on January 7, as early as tomorrow, Jan. 5, Google is expected to formally announce their upcoming smartphone, the Nexus One. Nexus One, rumored to be based on HTC's Passion device, is expected to be sold with complete Google branding and a pure Android platform. More importantly, Google may be planning to sell the device as an unlocked GSM phone, which means anyone can buy the device and then get a calling plan separately with any carrier they want with a compatible GSM network.

Beyond that, as if that would not be big enough news, look for more Android-based offerings--from phones to tablet devices--showing up at the CES event proper.

In the meantime, a new buzzword may be dominant at the Vegas electronics show: smartbooks. First seen from Sharp in November with their NetWalker PC-71 device, these handhelds are, as you might expect from the name, somewhere between a smartphone and a netbook. These ultra-small devices are always connected to the Internet via 3G cellular networks and will provide productivity apps, via their Linux platforms, for users.

Even though this class of device was out last fall, the big reveals will be staged at CES later this week, from Qualcomm and Sharp, to name two manufacturers. With ARM-based chips and Linux as the OS reducing the costs of these devices, analysts are predicting that if smartbooks are accepted by consumers, smartbooks could become real profit generators for hardware makers.

Curiously, there won't be much competition for Linux-based mobile offerings at CES. Apple isn't expected to announce its rumored tablet device until January 26, and Windows Mobile continues to struggle with declining market share.

This decline in Windows Mobile is interesting, because it seems to belie one of the main arguments against Linux on mobile devices: that Linux devices are limited in their functionality by their lack of applications.

This argument was most recently framed in a Wall Street Journal article about the rise of smartbooks at CES, which felt the need to highlight a caveat about these devices: "But smartbooks running Linux or its offshoots, such as Google Inc.'s Android, won't run applications like Microsoft Word or Apple's iTunes. Early netbooks that ran Linux ran into customer resistance and were quickly replaced with Windows-based models."

Which is followed up by this rather expected comment: "'Customers will likely continue to choose Windows netbook PCs over Linux smartbooks for these same reasons,' predicts Ben Rudolph, a Microsoft senior manager for Windows."

While Mr. Rudolph may feel his viewpoint a valid one--and we could obviously argue that point--it must be pointed out that he was describing netbooks, upon which Windows (XP, mind you) can actually run. Smartbooks, with their ARM hardware and smaller profiles, are not a platform for desktop Windows offerings, even antiquated ones. In fact, at this time, only Windows Mobile runs on ARM--something that even the One Laptop Per Child project was lamenting back in March.

Now we have a situation where Windows Mobile, which by all rights should have the "best" productivity apps, since its developers have full access to Office application code, is in sharp decline, while Linux, supposedly limited by a lack of productivity apps, is very much on the rise.

The truth is that there are plenty of applications for Linux-based devices, including multimedia players, full office suites, and file management tools that will match or exceed anything on Windows Mobile, and Microsoft knows it. Why else would it attempt to distract the media with a comparison of Linux and Windows on an entirely different architecture?

Right now, the major players in mobile operating systems are Linux (via Moblin and Android), Blackberry, and the Phone. Windows Mobile is becoming a footnote in an arena that's exploding with growth.

Welcome to 2010: The Year Linux Makes Contact.

 

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