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ARM based netbooks?—not exactly.  But how about a new category?

Posted: 03.16.09

Is this the future ARM-based cloud client?

ARM netbooks are coming and it’s not about price because ARM silicon won’t be that much cheaper than an Intel or VIA solution. It will be about power management, always on, thin cloud client apps, and freedom from Microsoft—but will it be a “netbook?” I think not.

ARM and its partners (i.e. Freescale, Marvell, Nvidia, Samsung, TI, etc.) have as good, if not better graphics as Intel or VIA, so screen size, resolution, and performance will not be an issue, nor will the UI. The issue will be in establishing a new always-on thin client category and getting some high-profile customers like government, physicians, banks, and insurance companies who have data security issues to adopt it.

I’m calling this new category—Cloud Client

The problem ARM and its partners will face is the FUD and pre-positioning by the incumbent stake holders who will try to characterize the category as a smart phone or MID. Screen size and full-size keyboard should help in thwarting that effort, but be prepared for a lot of noise and conflicting and confusing messaging battles.

Freedom from Microsoft? One doesn’t have to run Microsoft on Intel or VIA, how does the issue of freedom from Microsoft make sense? True, there have been netbooks with Linux and the channel has reported that they have had the highest return rates, forcing the OEMs to go to XP as a minimum. Newer netbooks are being shipped with Vista.

A MID with a netbook.

Most importantly, however, is Microsoft’s strangle hold on office applications, Word, Excel, and Power Point. If you want to share files, you need Office compatibility. Open Office can solve that problem, and so can Google Docs. Thunderbird can be the mail client and calendar.

Furthermore, Android could become the de facto cloud OS. So now envision a machine with either Android or Linux, and either Open Office or Google Docs, as an always-on thin client, lightweight, secure, and very
affordable.

This then gives us the following litany of mobile products:

A Cloud Client would be larger than a MID, and the same size, or larger than a netbook. Navigation units were not included in the list since everything will have a GPS radio or at the least cell location capabilities and maps.

Some of the most significant differences between a MID, a netbook, and a Cloud Client are:

  • The MID has always-on giving it a critical capability. Future netbooks may get this feature soon, and a Cloud Client, by definition, has it.
  • The MID and, by Intel’s suggestion, netbooks, have limited screen size—a Cloud Client wouldn’t.
  • The MID has a tap keyboard, netbooks have a full, but somewhat restricted, keyboard, and a Cloud Client need have no such
    restriction.
  • MIDs and Cloud Clients can have touch screens. It’s doubtful netbooks ever will.
  • Cloud Clients could also be configured as a tablet—netbooks won’t, MIDs might.

I see a real opportunity for the Cloud Client category. It won’t be a device for everyone like a mobile phone or a notebook, anymore than a game console or a tablet is. However, there is a real need for a portable, secure, always-on device, and none of the current devices fit that bill.

So did Apple design the prototype Cloud Client package?

What if the screen could be opened a full 360-degrees, so the keyboard (disabled) is on the bottom, and the screen is touch—isn’t that a tablet, the kind of machine doctors and insurance agents and other data collection personnel want and need? Oh, and did I mention always on—no WiFi hunting.

And it doesn’t have to be super cheap like a netbook, it could easily sell in the $400 to $1,200 range.

Category Productivity Entertainment Screen (in) Keyboard
Mobile phones Y Y 2.5 -3.5 Y
Game console N Y 3 – 5.0 N
MIDs Y N ? 2.8 – 5.0 Y
Media player N Y 3 – 5.5 N
Cloud client Y N 9 – 12.0 Y
Netbook Y Y 8 – 10.0 Y
Tablet Y Y 10 – 14.1 Y
Notebook Y Y 8 – 17.0 Y