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Bowling For Smartbooks: Qualcomm's And Lenovo's Bid For A New Platform @ CES 2010

The hope of small processor manufacturers like ARM, and connectivity platform makers like Qualcomm, is to carve a space for themselves in the price/performance spectrum someplace in-between the smartphone and the netbook, in an area some analysts have said is too narrow to start an empire.

They hope to build an Web-enabled computer without the aid of traditional players such as Intel, AMD, and Nvidia, and they want to do it on their terms.

Qualcomm introduced its Snapdragon chipset platform (actually just a single chip) just before CES 2009, with the intention of building CDMA-enabled smartbooks that run on batteries and power up through adaptors like cell phones, but can surf the Web, use Web apps, and play movies like netbooks.

Snapdragon is centered around single-core ARM processors timed at around 1 GHz. At first, Qualcomm mentioned Windows Mobile along with Android as the operating systems that would lead the way for Snapdragon-based devices.

Indeed, WM6 provided the software platform for one of Snapdragon's first entries in January 2009, Toshiba's TG01. But since then, the Windows Mobile talk has died down; the next big entry for Snapdragon thus far has been the Acer Liquid.

But a child of five will tell you those look like smartphones, not smartbooks. This morning, Lenovo pushed the Snapdragon platform over the jumping point with the introduction of Skylight, a clamshell smartbook with a 10-inch screen and a custom, non-branded Linux under the hood. Lenovo promises 10 hours of active use on a single charge.

One good reason for that high estimate is that there's no hard drive (which may be typical of smartbooks to come); rather, there's 20 GB of flash memory, though customers will be encouraged to subscribe to cloud-based services, probably for document synchronization and portability.

The surprise here is that, despite all of Qualcomm's efforts to push CDMA, the network that will be making Skylight available in the US is AT&T.

Beginning in April, AT&T outlets will be offering Skylight for sale either for $499, or for more installment-like fees typical of iPhone plans, for instance.

Those plans will be marketed under the AT&T DataConnect banner, which leases data bandwidth in increments ranging from the month to the day, with pay-as-you-go options. So if you're a Skylight user, you're by default a cloud user as well.

Lenovo describes Skylight's pre-loaded Web apps as "gadgets," although some of them aren't so much apps as what PC users would think of as "shortcuts" -- for example, to YouTube or Amazon MP3. Another of these shortcuts is to Roxio CinemaNow, which could very quickly move the needles on the DataConnect meter.

The importance of the topic of smartbooks as a platform, if not yet the substance itself, will very likely be raised to prime importance this Friday.

That's when Qualcomm Chairman and CEO Dr. Paul Jacobs is scheduled to give a keynote address to CES, for the first time in Qualcomm's history.