Linux Webpads Give PC Competition

New hardware for a new generation.

The unveiling of Transmeta's Crusoe processor (see last month's article “Transmeta Writes the News”) highlights an emerging class of computing devices, often called webpads. These devices provide high-quality web access in a conveniently portable design. Resembling the display portion of a mobile PC (see Figure 1), webpads have no bulky keyboard or heavy disk drives. Better yet, they don't need Microsoft Windows—Linux or other low-cost operating systems are preferred.

Webpad Prototype

These devices are only beginning to reach the market, and with prices as high as $999, they will appeal mainly to front-line soldiers in the gadget wars. But prices will inevitably fall, and at under $500, webpads will offer a great alternative to those who want the Web without the hassle of a Windows PC. Although webpads don't have to use Linux, its reliability, modest memory footprint and especially its open source code make it an excellent choice.

Why Webpads?

Webpads offer several advantages over a PC. The first is ease of use. A webpad does one thing: browse the Web. With a dedicated browser on top of a stripped-down version of Linux, the system provides a simple, reliable interface with minimal boot time. Microsoft offers Windows CE for such “information appliances”, but that OS still bears the scars of its Windows heritage.

Webpads offer mobility that can't be matched by a PC. All sub-$1,000 PCs today are desk-bound. Even if you pay more to get a notebook PC, you get a device weighing at least three pounds, and more typically, five to seven pounds. This weight is mostly due to hard drives, CD drives, large batteries and cooling mechanisms (fans and heat sinks) for the Intel-compatible CPU.

A webpad weighs only about one pound and has a longer battery life, despite using a smaller, lighter battery. Like a cordless telephone, it links to a base station using radio frequencies. Thus, a webpad will operate anywhere within a typical house or small office. The wireless link transfers data at 2 to 11MBps—enough to keep up with even a DSL Internet connection. Eliminating the drives gives webpads a sizable cost advantage, at least when compared to mobile PCs. In contrast to the cheapest desktop PCs, webpads will cost more, because their flat-screen displays are more expensive than CRTs and also due to the cost of the wireless link.

Today's PCs also benefit from economies of scale. Within a few years, increasing volumes and lower-cost screens should bring a webpad under $500, the price of the least expensive PC with monitor. At this price, webpads should greatly increase in popularity.

Other non-PC devices already provide web access, including WebTV, Sega's Dreamcast and the Palm VII. WebTV and similar devices use a standard low-resolution TV as the display, so they can't display a full web page from most sites without scrolling. And, of course, they aren't mobile. The Palm VII uses cell-phone technology to provide unmatched mobility, but its display has even less resolution than a TV, limiting it to web sites designed specifically for the hand-held device. A webpad, in contrast, will typically have a VGA or better color LCD display comparable to a 14-inch monitor, providing full compatibility with any web site. The Palm VII also requires a monthly cellular subscription fee; the webpad does not.

Web Model Threatens PCs

Of course, webpads are not PCs and aren't compatible with the vast range of PC software. But they are good for accessing a variety of services over the Web, including news, shopping, e-mail, chat, banking, voice mail and whatever the dot-coms think of next. In fact, the plethora of new web services is undermining the value of the PC's flexibility. You used to need a PC if you wanted to log your appointments, maintain an address book, track your stock portfolio and calculate your income taxes. Now all these services are available on any platform with a web browser. Still, webpads won't replace most PCs in the foreseeable future.

Using an on-screen keyboard or handwriting recognition, webpad users can enter URLs and short e-mail messages, but these interfaces are not ideal for creating memos, papers, spreadsheets, drawings and other documents needed for school, work and even some personal uses. High-quality voice recognition could begin to close the gap, but that is still years away. In short, webpads are ideal for viewing and interacting with information, while PCs remain an efficient platform for creating content. PCs are likely to stay on most business desktops and in many homes for this reason. However, high-income households may someday contain a single PC and one or more webpads instead of multiple PCs.

The real opportunity lies in penetrating the households that don't have a PC today: 50% of the U.S. market and far more in other regions. Many of these consumers can afford a PC, but don't want to deal with the complexity of that platform. By eliminating Windows, a Linux-based webpad solves this problem. Even if they don't displace PCs, webpads could one day outsell them.

email: linley@linleygroup.com

Linley Gwennap (linley@linleygroup.com) is the founder and principal analyst of The Linley Group (www.linleygroup.com), a technology analysis firm in Mt. View, California. He is a former editor in chief of Microprocessor Report.

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