When I heard this week that Intel would be releasing a software developer kit and an App Store for Atom-based netbooks, I was left scratching my head at first. The term netbook implies that these machines are designed to spend the majority of their time online surfing the Web, checking e-mail, and using social networking tools. And since most netbooks run Windows, it’s not as if consumers really need much help finding programs. Do they really need an app store?
Then I read the part about this SDK being made available for both Windows and Linux-based Moblin operating systems. This OS has a slick interface, and while it’s available for download it has only been preinstalled on one solitary netbook (the Dell Mini 10v Ubuntu Moblin Remix Developer Edition). Intel's App Store push isn't merely designed to prop up its OS, however; it's a strategy to resuscitate the struggling mobile Internet device category—and is potentially a back door into the smart phone market.
Generally speaking, MIDs are handheld tablets with screen sizes from 3 to 7 inches. But, up until now, Intel Atom-based MIDs have had very little mainstream appeal because they’re not as pocket-friendly as smart phones or as powerful as notebooks. They’re also pricey. The 7.0-inch Viliv S7, for example, sells for $549. Earlier this week, DigiTimes reported that several members from Intel’s Mobile Internet Device Innovation Alliance were abandoning ship, turning their attention to smartbooks and eBook readers instead.
But Intel isn’t giving up without a fight. The company already has one partner lined up for its next-generation MID chip in LG. Codenamed Moorestown, this chip integrates an Atom processor core, graphics, video, and memory controller. This LG device will also have 3G connectivity, which demonstrates that the line between the MID and smart phone is blurring. And you know Intel very much wants to compete in the smart phone race; although 50 million Atom-based devices are projected to be sold by the end of this year, the smart phone market is about four times that size. Could Intel leverage its Atom App Store to lure developers to its chips for MIDs and handsets? Maybe, but there are two huge obstacles in the way.
First, Moblin faces serious competition from Android. Dell, HTC, LG, Motorola, Samsung, and others are all making smart phones running Google's platform, which is forecast to leapfrog the iPhone OS in terms of market share by 2012. And other manufacturers are adopting Android for MIDs, including Archos and (if you believe the rumors) Dell and Motorola. Second, Intel must compete with the likes of Qualcomm and other ARM-based chip makers who are scaling up the clock speed and graphics capabilities of their ultra-mobile processors. It also doesn’t help that Apple was rumored to pass on Moorestown for its products because it demanded too much power, which raises concerns about energy consumption versus ARM chips.
While I don’t see Moblin or MIDs taking off anytime soon, the Windows version of the Atom App Store could give Microsoft some ammunition against the rumored Apple tablet. Early next year, I anticipate that at least a few major PC manufacturers will release sub-$600 netbooks with convertible touchscreens, which will be crying out for compelling programs. If Intel can push developers in the direction of touch, so-called net-vertibles could be a good proving ground for its App Store. But it remains to be seen whether MID and smart phone makers currently backing “ARMdroid” will be swayed.
Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on twitter.