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ARM-based netbooks face software roadblock

Posted: 09 Mar 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:software problem? ARM netbook? Atom netbook?

Qualcomm Inc. and several other vendors are using ARM-based processors to try to muscle their way into the netbook market, where Intel Corp.'s Atom dominates. How quickly and to what degree these devices will be able to capture netbook market share is an open question, one that centers largely on consumer demand for the familiar user experience offered by Windows XP.

Windows XP requires x86 processors. Linux, used as an alternative, lacks the ease-of-use and PC features some users expect.

As a result, Atom will continue to dominate the netbook sector for the next few years, according to Mario Morales, VP of global semiconductor research at International Data Corp. (IDC). Morales predicted ARM-based netbooks with processors from Qualcomm, Freescale, Texas Instruments and others will ship this year but command no more than 10 to 20 percent of the market for the next few years.

"You don't want to burn Intel," he said. "If I am an AsusTek, I need to get processors for my other product lines from them."

Qualcomm's bet
Qualcomm's Snapdragon, first introduced in 2006, is a platform which combines a processor core, DSP and 3G connectivity and promises low power consumption for day-long battery life.

According to Qualcomm, 15 manufacturers are currently developing more than 30 Snapdragon-based products, some of which are expected to be in stores later this year.

Some of these products are smart phones, such as the Toshiba TG01 announced last month. Other Snapdragon-based products currently in development include netbooks, according to Qualcomm. The list of companies developing Snapdragon-based products includes netbooks OEMs and ODMs like Acer, Asus, Compal, Quanta Computer and Foxconn International Holdings.

According to Luis Pineda, senior VP of marketing for Qualcomm's CDMA technologies group, netbook manufacturers see Snapdragon as a compelling solution over Atom. Pineda cited Snapdragon's power efficiencywhich he said eliminates the need for heat sinks and internal fans in a netbookand promise of 3G connectivity.

"A netbook is no good if you can't connect to the Internet and have to look for a Wi-Fi hotspot," Pineda said.

3G advantage
Pineda acknowledged that Qualcomm faces a challenge because netbooks powered by Atom are already widely available and popular. The product category, which offers razor thin margins because of its low price, is nevertheless hot right now. Market research firm Gartner Inc. projects that shipments of mini-notebooksincluding netbookswill increase to 21 million units this year from 11.7 million units in 2008even as overall PC shipments decline 12 percent.

Pinneda calls Snapdragon a game changer. He and other Qualcomm executives say Snapdragon will define the netbook category by enabling devices that are always on and always connected to a 3G network, similar to the way consumers enjoy a smart phone.

Asked about the lack of Windows XP support, Pineda said this new always on, always connected user experience will ultimately be more relevant than what OS is used.

Over time, improvements in Google Android and other environments are expected to reduce the software barrier.

"I saw a lot of effort in mobile Linux at the Mobile World Congress this year," said IDC's Morales. "ARM will gain traction as Linux takes off," he added.

Morales said vendors with ARM-based devices are typically selling parts that integrate much of the silicon needed for a netbook for 15 percent less than Intel gets for Atom.

"Netbooks are just not a good semiconductor opportunity, even the PC guys don't like them despite the fact they represent incremental volume," Morales said. "You need to create a high end of this low-end market to make it a more interesting opportunity."

In January, Robert Castellano, president of The Information Network, issued a report suggesting that Intel's Q4 08 numbers were hurt by the success of netbooks because Atom cost about $200 less than Intel's more expensive Penryn devices for notebooks. Castellano and others have suggested that netbooks cannibalize the market for more expensive notebooks.

Qualcomm's original 1GHz Snapdragon has been in production since last year. The company in November announced a dual-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon single-chip solution, which Pineda said is currently sampling.

Freescale in January introduced an i.MX51 SoC that sells for less than $20, including a separate power management chip and a Linux software stack, said to enable a sub-$200 netbook. TI's OMAP 4 platform is marketed for smart phones and mobile Internet devices, but a spokesperson said that could also apply to netbooks, depending on how the term is defined. The platform is capable of supporting netbooks, the spokesperson said.

Europe is generating much of the netbook demand today, in part from telecom service providers selling the devices like cellphones at relatively low prices with an Internet service contract, Morales said.

- Rick Merritt, Dylan McGrath
EE Times

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