The netbook promises convenience and capability in a small, lightweight, and generally inexpensive package, and the concept of a smartbook goes even further: a handy-dandy combination of smartphone and notebook. Alas, most netbook offerings come burdened with a full blown Windows operating system, which runs slowly on performance-limited netbook hardware and saps battery life. And Windows is not exactly smartphone-oriented.
Could Google's Android come to rescue the netbook and enable the smartbook vision? After all, Android is a fast, lightweight OS, proven in the mobile phone market, with an elegant user interface and application portability. It's a natural candidate for the OS inside your dream netbook.
There are signs that Google is preparing for a new generation of netbooks and smartbooks, with its OS at the centre, but it's not so clear which Google OS. Motorola's Droid smartphone shipped recently based on Android 2.0, which adds interesting netbook-oriented features such as variable screen size. But then last week Google demonstrated its Chrome OS, the core of a future cloud-based web appliance, slated to ship a year from now, raising questions about whether Android is really appropriate as a netbook OS. Is Android a dessert topping or a furniture polish? Both, according to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who implied at last week's Chrome OS press conference that the Android and Chrome OSes could merge in the near future.
Even as the Android/Chrome OS relationship plays out, Android-based netbooks have also begun to appear: Acer just shipped its Aspire One D250-1613.
With the market on the verge of defining itself, now is a good time to help manufacturers fine tune their imminent offerings by laying out the essential features of a future ideal smartbook running some variant of Google's Android. Although Android is really mostly the Linux OS and WebKit browser foundation under the covers, it sports a novel user interface geared specifically for mobile use. That interface requires specific hardware capabilities, and mobile operation in general demands networking features that aren't found in most notebooks or even smartphones.
The basic pedigree of any smartbook falls between that of a smartphone and an ordinary notebook. Today that means about a 1.6GHz dual core CPU, a gigabyte or so of RAM, and around 100GB of disk space. Other aspects focus on usability. Here are our 10 essential features that any future Google smartbook should encompass, in priority order. Want to see examples of each?
1. Multitouch screen
Smartphones such as the iPhone and Palm Pre rely on a multitouch screen interface for almost all of their operations. Although not fully implemented in the Motorola Droid, the Android OS has the same capabilities. The key is that the screen itself be touch sensitive: As users of Acer's Aspire Android netbook have reported, a multitouch trackpad is not an adequate substitute. There are just too many times when you have to locate your fingers directly on objects on the screen, and moving a pointer first is just plain ugly. Imagine Tom Cruise trying to operate the "Minority Report" screens with a mouse. A multitouch screen can still be used with a trackpad, so users can keep their hands on the keyboard when they like.
Thinking outside the box, there is no reason a dream smartbook has to follow the clamshell bandwagon. Consider a twist-around touchscreen that lets you turn your smartbook into a netpad, like the Acer Aspire 1420p laptop does. Dreamalicious! Even a detachable, stowable keyboard is no fantasy feature.
2. Android buttons
Android smartphones use four dedicated hardware buttons (Home, Menu, Back and Search) as integral components of the user interface. Android overloads these buttons with multiple functions, depending on whether the button is pressed once quickly, pressed and held (the "long press"), or double-clicked. For example, holding the Home button brings up a list of running applications, similar to typing Alt-Tab on a Windows notebook. Android phone users become intimately familiar with these functions, making them part of their gesture muscle memory. Regardless of whether that's good or bad, users transitioning between devices had better find Android's special buttons on any Android smartbook they use, or else they'll quickly become frustrated.
Do the buttons have to be actual hardware? Not really: Virtual buttons on the trackpad, or even the touch screen itself, could be acceptable substitutes. As a corollary, the device should have hardware audio volume and mute controls, rather than double-duty keyboard buttons, to give users fast access to sound levels. Why? Because phones do, and many Android smartbook users will have Android smartphones.
3. Fullsized keyboard
Some netbooks take little to inappropriate lengths, as it were, with keyboards that are just slightly smaller than full size: generally about 90 percent as large. Small keyboards are workable when you can operate them with two thumbs, such as on a BlackBerry Bold, but when they're too large for that, anyone without small hands will likely find themselves typoing rather than typing. The 10 percent size difference is not worth the pain it induces in users. Because Google is about nothing if not usability, any truly dreamy smartbook will have a full sized keyboard.
While on the subject of keyboards, netbook and smartbook builders of all stripes should consider keyboard noise. Any Google smartbook is going to find itself in quiet settings where continuous click and clack (sorry, Tom and Ray) is not welcome. We've sent men to the moon, we can send quiet keyboards to the library.
4. Solid state drive
There's nothing worse than waking up from a good dream, but that's what happens when your netbook battery dies. SSDs (solid-state drives) can double battery life, as well as spiff performance by a factor of two or three. And that all important startup time will always be much shorter when booting from a solid state device. (That's why Google's specs for its Chrome OS-based net appliances allow SSDs but not hard drives.) Fortunately, solid state technology is improving apace, making SSDs affordable standard equipment for smartbooks.
Security is a natural concern with any portable computer, so the SSD should be combined with whole drive encryption technology to give users peace of mind about sensitive data that could fall into the hands of criminals. Even though Google envisions storing user data in the cloud, information is necessarily cached on a smartbook's internal storage, that's what it's there for. Bonus points accrue for built-in two factor authentication using biometrics or plugin tokens.
5. Ubiquitous networking
The "net" in netbook stands for networking, and no self-respecting dream machine can claim the title unless it has the ability to latch onto any modern network. This means 10/100 Ethernet (GigE is a bonus), Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n), 3G, 4G and Bluetooth.
Each of these networking technologies has its place: Ethernet for the desk, Wi-Fi for meetings, 3G and 4G for the road, and Bluetooth for tethering devices like phones, headsets, and mice. A Google smartbook maker gets extra points for upgradeable networking via plug-in modules, which helps future proof your investment.
6. Variable speed graphics
Sometimes you want long battery life, sometimes you want to not get killed in Robo Defense. Apple solved this problem nicely by building dual graphics processors into select MacBook Pro notebooks: a reasonably fast processor for utilitarian tasks, and a 2.5X processor for turbocharged performance. You can switch between the processors, trading speed for battery life as needed. Unless Apple has patented this idea, it seems a great feature for a dream standard smartbook, especially given Google's penchant for graphic-intensive applications like Google Earth and Street View.
A standard VGA graphics-out port is a given, since you'll want to use your smartbook as a presentation tool (although that may require running Windows, horrors! in place of Android).
7. Integrated microphone, camera, and audio I/O
Cell phone multimedia recording has made its mark on society, bringing eyes and ears to all kinds of public, and less than public, venues. Generally this is a good thing, promoting honesty, particularly in government circles. Google, being the home of YouTube, could not in good conscience support a mobile device without the ability to record video and audio, and upload it to the web in real time. Especially not a device with the "dream" moniker.
8. Built-in accelerometer, GPS, and compass
This trio of technologies has ushered in a new wave of genius applications for smartphones: turn-by-turn navigation, augmented virtual reality and geo-tagged data collection, to name just a few. Google's wealth of geographic databases makes it a natural adjunct for the virtual surveying capabilities you get by combining these three position measuring features, and a smartbook's large screen and keyboard add up to much more convenience for serious geographic information processing compared to a smartphone. Positioning electronics are already mass produced for the handset market, so they should add little cost to a smartbook.
9. Dual boot capability
Some users will argue that the dual boot capability should be a much higher priority in this list. We can agree that even casual users occasionally need access to capabilities only Windows can provide, though it does so slowly. Dual boot is an emergency escape hatch from the necessarily constrained world of pure Google apps and an essential feature for most people. (Look how Apple's support of dual Mac OS X/Windows boot revitalised the Mac market a few years back.) Can Android run that critical network management tool you need? How about your VPN client or videoconferencing widget? You'll think of more.
10. Thin, thin, thin
Users already have a small screen size device in the guise of their smartphone; they're not really looking to minimise those dimensions in their smartbook. More important for convenient holding and storage is thickness, or the lack thereof. Given that smartphones already have most of the capabilities of a smartbook, sans screen and keyboard, how hard can it be to make a smartbook as thin as a smartphone? Surely the 0.36-inch thinness of Amazon's Kindle 2 can be achieved in a netbook? Am I dreaming?
What dreams may come
Acer's Android-based Aspire One D250-1613, although deserving kudos as the first Android netbook to market, falls several items short of dream status. It lacks a touch screen (although it does have a multitouch trackpad), full sized keyboard, Android buttons and SSD, the four highest priority items on my list. But its networking is half baked, with 802.11b/g (missing a/n) and Bluetooth, graphics capabilities are mediocre and there are no position sensing devices. The integrated camera and microphone are adequate, but not astounding. The device does support dual boot, and it ships with Windows XP Home (or Windows 7 at a higher price).
Although other vendors, such as Asus, have Android netbooks in the works, their final hardware configurations haven't yet been disclosed (or leaked). Some manufacturers, such as Qualcomm and Texas Instruments, are pushing the use of an ARM processor in place of Intel's x86 Atom (they call these devices "smartbooks," but they're not what I mean by the term. I mean a netbook that includes smartphone capabilities as well). Chipmaker MIPS Technologies is even jumping into the fray by retaining software developer Embedded Alley to port Android to the MIPS processor architecture.
Pundits have made much ado about Google's seemingly divergent mobile OS projects, pointing out that despite a common Linux substrate, the graphical interfaces of the Android and Chrome OSes are wildly different. The Chrome OS has no desktop, which is a central feature of Android, as are Android's widgets and app store. The programming APIs are unique for each platform as well.
Google, for its part, says it will issue mandatory hardware requirements for Chrome OS devices, and presumably these requirements will be more than adequate for Android or any progeny OS issuing from the marriage of Google's dual OS efforts. Exactly how Google expects to enforce specific hardware specifications for an open source OS isn't yet clear. Google Chrome OS project members also pointedly note that the Chrome OS is not meant to be a lightweight notebook, in other words a netbook, but rather a web appliance with cloud-based storage.
This view is at odds with Eric Schmidt's implication of an OS merger in the offing. But I believe that merged view is where Google is going. Here's a hint from Google's recent press statements: "We're reaching a perfect storm of converging trends where computers are behaving more like mobile devices, and phones are behaving more like small computers."
The pieces are coming together for the smartbook revolution. And the recipe for the devices themselves is on these pages. Christmas 2010, anyone?