May 1, 2009
For a while there things were looking predictable, mature, even lazy. The next model would be smaller, faster, have more style, more color, with a bigger HDD, bigger screen and a smaller price. And it would trendily (and casually) drop legacy features in favour of ubiquitous unwired networking and further convergence with, say, the TV or the dishwasher. Of course the operating system would bulk up as we all headed to a multi-core, 64 bit world of living room and kitchen computing. PC Next would come in 2 tasty flavours: the delicious desktop or the desirable laptop. Yawn.
And then laptops became notebooks before morphing into something else again. Like an organic lifeform reaching some critical neuronal mass and gaining consciousness, the notebook became smaller, less powerful and yet, somehow, infinitely more attractive. The netbook was born and the PC marketplace began to look a bit different.
But the PC marketplace is a fascinating and wonderful thing, and more change is afoot. And this could be the most interesting recent play yet. Rather than a PC player invading the cell phone market, here we suspect it’s a new broom, unencumbered with baggage: a low-cost Chinese maker wielding a smartphone’s ARM chip, merging it with the Google Android OS and morphing the whole thing into a low-cost netbook. Well we knew it had to happen, and now it’s here: the Alpha 680.
So what? Well, whilst it continues to follow the now well-trodden path to PC commoditisation that’s seen margins fall and prices drop (less so with closed-shop proprietary boxes like Apple’s) it’s the first concrete sign that new players from left-field are about to wreak havoc on Intel’s and Microsoft’s respective cash cows. They have faced competition in the past and largely seen them all off, marginalised and niched into small pockets of loyalty, but this is different. Or is it?
A longtime engineer in the satellite industry, Wu, a 50-year-old Hong Kong native, co-founded Skytone in 2005 with another partner. Contrary to some reports, Skytone is unrelated to a similarly named maker of Skype telephone handsets. The company didn’t have a firm direction until an encounter with American retailing giant Wal-Mart in 2006 turned them toward the low-cost PC market. “They were looking for ways to build a $100 PC. We had expertise in porting Linux to embedded systems, and so they found us,” Wu said. “At the end of the day, we couldn’t meet Wal-Mart’s target, but we continued on this path, anyway.”
The InfoWorld article gives some fascinating detail on what to expect next, including that vaunted $100 PC… and a taste of what the newly-enthused competition will do next.