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ARM netbooks hit video, software snags

Posted: 15 Apr 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ARM netbook? Linux software? processor?

Engineers working on new generation of ARM/Linux-based netbooks are facing two issues crucial to the success of the systemsthe platform's poor support for Web video and its fragmented software base.

The results of their work will determine whether the $200 systems expected to ship starting this fall establish a significant new class of computers or frustrate users and create a market backlash.

The top problems are twofold: Adobe Flashthe underpinning of most Web videodoes not yet run natively the ARM processor, and the half dozen variants of mobile Linux available for ARM do not support any standard for how they run applications.

Neither issue will be completely resolved before the systems begin hitting the market this fall. However, observers say long term both problems can be minimized if not completely resolved.

In November, ARM and Adobe Systems announced they will deliver sometime in 2009 a version of Flash 10 optimized for mobile ARM devices. A spokesman for Adobe said the company has no update on that work.

"Adobe Flash is heavily used across the Web, and people are working hard on bringing it to ARM, but it's one of the big problems for these systems," said Gregor Berkowitz, president of Moto Development Group, a contract design company working with three clients on ARM/Linux netbooks.

Separately, many Web video sites are transitioning from Flash to the H.264 codec already supported in most ARM-based chips. But that also requires significant work on wrappers and software frameworks for transferring and playing H.264 video over the Web, he said.

Engineers also face hardware limits with video on ARM-based netbooks as the systems explore a range of 7- to 12-inch displays.

"The baseline expectation for video is 30fps, and at that rate every ARM device has different resolutions it can support on different size displays," Berkowitz said. "As screens get bigger, we're pushing the top end of the ARM performance," he added.

The ARM-based SoCs for netbooks launched by Freescale, Nvidia, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments all include video acceleration hardware. Improvements in those chips and in ARM's own Mali graphics and video accelerators will ease the problem over time.

"Units coming this fall will have a risk of being slightly underpowered, though they could have a good user experience," said Berkowitz. "The parts coming next year will eliminate that problem and make platforms very impressive," he added.

Wide variety
Engineers building ARM-based netbooks have their choice of a half dozen mobile Linux environments or they can roll their own. But each one has a slightly different mix of software components and the field lacks a consistent applications framework.

"The field is both crowded and scattered," said Bill Weinberg, a veteran Linux consultant.

"There are about six paradigms for writing a mobile Linux app," Weinberg said. "Until recently, these platforms have not been compete distributions, they were just open source projects built on other open source projects and the seams were meant to show," he said.

In addition, emerging netbook platforms will sport a wide range of different hardware peripherals. The two factors mean an application that might run well on one system could behave poorly or crash on another.

"Even if you sold systems just for email and browsing, you still have to have some compatibility and apps, so you need something at the application framework level, but there's not a lot of standardization there yet," said Weinberg who wrote a white paper on fragmentation in mobile Linux.

Berkowitz said the answer is to design netbooks as appliances with built-in browsers and email clients that tap cloud-based services from carriers or others to access a broader range of applications.

"There isn't a Windows framework for buying and downloading apps" on open Linux systems, said Berkowitz. "So the easier way to look at this is not running apps locally, but running them in a browser, then the challenge becomes how you manage files in the cloud," he said.

That would open up an opportunity for carriers, OEMs or others to provide netbook applications services. In April, AT&T started in offering in Atlanta and Philadelphia x86/Windows netbooks from Acer, Dell and LG for a subsidized price of $49 with a service contract.

"This whole space will get pushed pretty hard," said Berkowitz.

Indeed, the manager of TI's OMAP application processor group suggested many of the early ARM/Linux netbooks will come from cellphone, not notebook OEMs.

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