Smartbooks need the iPad

imageLong before the launch of the iPad or the introduction of the smartbook concept, a client asked me what I thought about the idea of netbooks that didn’t run Windows. Versions of the ASUS Eee and HP Mini had been available with Linux distributions, but were ultimately cancelled in the face of consumers’ overwhelming preference for Windows on those devices. If it walks like a mouse being used on Windows, consumers expect to use it with a mouse being used with Windows. Now, SlashGear notes that Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs says that the iPad has delivered the concept of “always-on, all–day devices” that smartbooks had originally promised.

I read that comment as potential validation, but SlashGear frames it as a concession. If Jacobs has indeed taken up the white flag from Shantanu Narayen, It’s oddly timed given the barrage of ARM-powered Android tablets that are in the works. Archos, for example, just announced a whole family of Internet tablets (if you can call a device with a 3.2” screen a tablet as they do) and Samsung has announced the highest-profile iPad competitor to date in the Galaxy Tab (more on that name later).

So perhaps the term smartbook, like netbook, implies a keyboard – something that wasn’t the case in concept videos shown early on by Qualcomm. The Lenovo Skylight (pictured) was shelved, but promised to return one day running Android. Challenges abound. Not only is Android is not optimized for larger screens, but it needs a staple of applications to fill in the gaps with Windows (something Linux actually had for productivity in OpenOffice). Furthermore, channel, task and usage scenario overlap with Windows becomes more pronounced.

Over time, though, consumers may be more accepting of a keyboard-equipped smartbook. As the SlashGear post notes, HP and Toshiba have dabbled in the market. The paradox is that consumers need more successful non-Windows tablets like the iPad to understand such a device with a keyboard. Apple probably won’t produce one, but has opened the door to accessory makers to create an equivalent, and others will. The key for these vendors is to show consumers that even keyboard-enabled smartbooks are not neutered netbooks, but supersized smartphones.

Samsung appears to recognize that in using the “Galaxy” brand across its smartphones and the Tab, but it is both a new brand and one that has been subdued (at least in the U.S.) under the monikers that various carriers have given it. In any case, consumers have of course accepted physical keyboards on smartphones (with at least one successful clamshell feature phone that may be Android-bound).

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