An intriguing post on Forbes has me thinking about a category of device that never materialized in a meaningful way outside of Japan, the smartbook. The article is a summary of a conversation with Rich Beyer of Freescale, and it discusses his view of smartbooks and the state of the mobile computing market. The smartbook, essentially a notebook or netbook with voice calling features, never really caught with the market, and the introduction of the iPad and other forthcoming tablets could have people wondering if there is a need for a smartbook. I can see a market for smartbooks, but I think it is pretty small.
There will continue to be a segment of users that require a notebook: something that has more computing, a bigger display and significantly more storage than a tablet. I will state up front that I really, really like my iPad. It is a nice balance between portability and utility. It allows me, with one device, to accomplish many different tasks (documents, spreadsheets, news and information, reading books, games, watching TV/movies, access to the Internet). However, for parts of my job, the iPad isn’t quite enough. I can’t working on any of my programming tasks, “serious” document editing that works better with a full keyboard and a big screen, or research-oriented tasks that need lots of open windows in the browser. I don’t have a problem with that though, that’s what I have a notebook for.
The iPad, like other tablets, isn’t something I would necessarily want as a phone when out and about. My iPhone fits in my pocket, and offers some of the same features as the iPad, but the small screen and tiny soft-keyboard limit the device to what I expect of it: phone calls, some web browsing, news and information, music and games.
There is a category of mobile computing user who could benefit from a notebook that also supports voice calling. These are people that will make a lot of their calls from their hotel room or borrowed conference rooms/offices while on the road. They aren’t making calls with the notebook from a bench in Central Park. They are camped in their hotel room, making calls while performing other office-type tasks. Yes, they could use a smartphone, a regular mobile phone or even the hotel’s phone (although that is probably the most expensive). But the ability to have decent handsfree audio quality and essentially infinite battery life (since the notebook is invariably plugged into the wall) makes it easier and more comfortable for the person making the calls.
The challenge for a smartbook in this situation can be summed up in one word: Skype. I have a few colleagues who travel a lot, and rely extensively on Skype as their mobile calling platform when in their hotel or a borrowed office cube. Some of if is Skype-to-Skype calls, but they do also use it to call others on their landlines or mobile phones. With many notebooks featuring mobile broadband, and those that don’t can easily get it with a product like RocketStick, the Skype user on a notebooks doesn’t require the presence of WiFi to be able to make their calls.
What I don’t see is widespread adoption of the smartbook as a platform. I certainly don’t see it making many inroads in the retail market: the tablet appears to be serious traction in this area, apparently taking a chunk out of the netbook market (anywhere from 25% to 50% this year, depending on who you talk to), and likely hitting the retail notebook market as well. The tablet will have a place in corporate computing, although I expect it will be to a smaller extent. The notebook will remain the purview of mobile gamers, people who need to do “heavy-lifting” type document editing, or people who need to do serious audio or video work while on the road. There will be a small few that will want a smartbook, but I would expect them to mainly be corporate road-warriors. For myself, it doesn’t really fit. A mobile phone suits my modest calling needs, and carrying a phone and a notebook isn’t exactly hardship.