smartbookWe have already said plenty about the possible e-book reading potential of netbooks as opposed to dedicated e-book readers. Now here comes a whole new category of micro-laptop that might also be good for e-book reading, at a lower price point.

In the last few years, we have had notebooks, powerbooks, macbooks, netbooks…and now “smartbooks” and “webbooks”. * It seems as though every time computer manufacturers decide to make a different size of machine, they have to come up with a new name for it. Remember when we only had “laptops”? Or even just “notebooks” and “subnotebooks”?

How Smart is the “Smartbook”?

This latest new name, smartbook, refers to something even smaller and less capable than a traditional netbook—something between a “smartphone” and a “netbook” in size, hence “smartbook”. Don Clark of the Wall Street Journal has a piece previewing their appearance at next week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

According to the article, smartbooks are meant to cost less than today’s average-price $250 netbook, will probably have provision for a built-in cell connection, and will offload most of their functionality to the cloud.

They will use ARM CPUs for longer battery life, rather than X86, so they will not run Windows XP or 7. Instead, they will generally run a flavor of Linux, most likely Android. Hence, they will not be able to run the traditional Microsoft apps that consumers are used to.

The interesting thing is that, except for the cell connection, this sounds an awful lot like the Cherrypal Africa $99 netbook. Perhaps we should start calling the Cherrypal a “smartbook” too?

As with smaller smartphones and larger netbooks, these smartbooks will presumably make decent e-book readers. There are at least some e-book apps for every platform, especially Android. It depends on how good the user interface and ergonomics are.

But not everybody thinks there is really a need for smartbooks.

"It’s too big to be a phone and too small for easy content creation," says Roger Kay, a market researcher with Endpoint Technologies Associates. "There has been little evidence that people really like that category."

The Litl “Webbook”

But these “smartbooks” are not the only new tiny cloud computer on the horizon. Walt Mossberg, also of the Wall Street Journal, reviews another one: the Litl “webbook”. However, the Litl is at the other end of the price spectrum, costing twice the price of a higher-end netbook at $699.

The Litl is meant to do literally everything in the cloud, and as a result has almost no non-net functionality (and, in fact, no local storage whatsoever). Mossberg finds the Litl to be a “little” lacking, especially for the price; its ability to turn itself inside-out into “easel” mode for TV-like web info display is not terribly useful and its user interface is underwhelming.

Although Mossberg does not draw them, some parallels could be drawn between this “webbook” and e-book readers. The Kindle and Nook cost almost as much as a netbook themselves, and do so much less. Earlier e-book readers, such as the Rocketbook (hey, another “-book” name!) cost considerably more.

Is iSlate a “Smartbook” too?

The description of a “smartbook” as being like a smartphone only larger sounds suspiciously like Apple’s plan to come out with a tablet just like its iPhone (or iPod Touch) only larger.

And of course e-book reading is going to be a major application for this device if rumors are to be believed. But probably not the only application. The Apple tablet (whether it ends up being called “iSlate” or not) will likely be considerably more capable (and expensive) than the other “smartbooks”.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball thinks that it will be a laptop replacement—in other words, a general-purpose computer that will do the main things you want a laptop for in a more convenient form. Given that my iPod Touch is very nearly that for me now, I would believe it.

Whatever it will be, the Apple tablet will not be at the Consumer Electronics Show. Apple is not in the habit of sharing the stage. Apple is holding its next media event on January 26th, and will presumably unveil its tablet there.

*It is interesting to consider the way every new laptop category is called “(something) book”. I know it comes from the original term “notebook,” for a skinny laptop, but it almost seems as if the computer manufacturers were trying to help push e-books by subconsciously associating computers with books.


  1. I like this category for e-books if the right DRM-capable applications are available. However, I don’t personally like how they may be drifting toward the cell-provider subsidized and cloud based computing model.

    As far as the subsidized model, it falls right into the hands of the cell providers – you pay for data service on the network over and over for every device you get. Are we all just suckers for hbigh monthly payments and low purchase prices? Do we feel like we should have to pay for a complete data plan on every device? I know it can be argued that it makes sense, but it doesn’t sound right to me. I think some customers, maybe a great many, end up being soaked. It feels like a cross between the overpriced text messaging plans and the consumer unfriendly rent-to-own furniture companies.

    Still, even if I sound pessimistic, I really like this category for e-books. I think they have the potential to compete effectively with dedicated devices, especially as improved screen technologies appear and processors get more efficient and powerful with smaller footprints for the “electronic guts”.

    As always, time will tell…

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