Qualcomm Gets Smart About Netbooks

Qualcomm's answer to Intel's Atom processor is called Snapdragon, but there's a lot more to this rivalry than catchy names. As Google's introduction of Wave, and Apple's iPod Touch and iPhone have made clear, the time is ripe for an explosion of low-cost, light-weight devices running cloud-based rather than locally-installed applications.

With Google providing an open-source operating system for both smartphones and so-called netbooks as well as applications, and Intel having brought its Moblin mobile operating system to market, momentum is building in a category that, because of its low cost, is outpacing sales of traditional notebooks, and has inspired Intel to announce that it will sell its own netbook. Enter Qualcomm, which has been planning for this day for several years.

If netbooks have one thing going against them (other than cramped keyboards and narrow screens), it's their nasty-sounding name. So Qualcomm has come up with the term "smartbook," capitalizing on the popularity of smartphones and the emerging netbook both. As Stacey Higginbotham noted

Qualcomm is taking a smartphone and making it bigger, as opposed to Intel's netbook strategy of taking a PC and making it smaller. So far, smaller PCs have worked out for Intel, but it's well aware that devices, like those proposed by Qualcomm, have features that will likely appeal to more users.
Qualcomm is unlikely to follow Intel's lead and build its own mobile devices, but does have several device manufacturers lining up to take its chipset to market. So far, 15 vendors, including Acer, Samsung, LG, HTC and Asus, have signed on to develop mobile devices based on Snapdragon.

None of those vendors have the design chops that Apple does, and will probably have to content themselves with the low end of the market once Apple launches its own version (which it is also loath to call a netbook), perhaps even using chips made in-house, with a helping hand from PA Semiconductor, which it acquired in 2007.

But you have to hand it to Qualcomm, which began planning for this day back in 2005.

Back then, it couldn't have known about Android -- heck, even Google probably didn't see Android as anything but an operating system for smartphones. But customers have made their wishes known (with their wallets), and Intel, Google, and now Qualcomm have been quick to respond. Mark Frankel, vice president of product management for Qualcomm CDMA technologies, said in a statement earlier this year that "Android running on Snapdragon chipsets [...] highlights some of the advanced functionality that will distinguish this next generation of mobile computing devices." He may not have been thinking of smartbooks when he said those words, but the success of the category has made that leap inevitable.

And while netbook sales have flourished, there is also evidence that customers see them as the best of a bad lot. Apple doesn't think very highly of the category either, because of aforementioned keyboard and screen size problems. But those are the kind of design issues which can be resolved by using smaller and better chipsets to give designers more flexibility to improve the ergonomics and performance of a product, which is exactly where Qualcomm hopes to come in.