Coming out of the 2008 Summer Olympics I joined a small team within Lenovo consisting of the company’s best engineers and designers to re-invent the netbook category — those small (sub 11″ screen) PCs that have taken the market by storm since their introduction two years ago.
The netbook category has flourished for a couple reasons best explored by a serious PC analyst — my opinion is that sub $400 PCs in a super-portable form factor were the perfect option for consumers slammed by economic concerns in this Great Recession and who are gradually migrating to a “disposable” device model brought on by a constant upgrade cycle in their phone and other consumer electronics. Alas, the netbook is still the same operating system, the same computing model, just in a smaller, cheaper package.
Consider the smartphone. Small. Thin. Long battery life. No patches or updates or viruses. No waiting to boot. It’s always connected (almost always). Highly designed. It just works. But it is too small to watch a movie on and is a major pain to compose anything on — aside from simple SMS or email “grunts.”
What happens if you combine the two models — the connected simplicity of a smartphone with the physical ergonomics of a netbook? Well, you get a “smartbook.”
Today Lenovo announced the first smartbook — called Skylight — in partnership with Qualcomm, the San Diego-based leader in phone chipsets. Using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon platform, the Lenovo Skylight is designed with cloud computing and social networking in mind. It is not a phone per se, but it leverages a 3G or Wifi network connection to present the user with a high definition browser experience that assumes most, if not all of the user’s content and activities are up there, in the cloud.
There is no harddrive, just a lot of flash memory. Productivity applications? Google Docs. Music? Amazon. This is a device designed for messaging and media.
So what makes it social? The user interface is a proprietary design built around an “app” paradigm. Those apps contain the user’s primary accounts — email, instant messaging, SMS, Facebook, etc. — and are extensible and customizable. The device is meant to be constantly on and connected, permitting the user to interact with it on an ad hoc basis, not a formal session where the user needs to power on, connect, then log in.
The design of the system is amazing, delivered by Richard Sapper, the genius behind the original ThinkPad. The user interface is internally developed on top of a Linux kernel and is pretty intuitive and very browser centric. The software implementation was remarkable, particularly given the challenges of porting a large screen user experience to an ARM platform. The engineering teams lead by Mike Vanover, Jim Hunt, and others pulled off a significant development miracle in building the operating environment.
The name — Skylight — is indicative of the device’s mission as a hardware portal into the cloud. With persistent and constant 3G and wifi, the device should have no issues living up to its name.
I presented a prototype to some resellers in London last summer and over the course of a few days was able to play with the machine on a wifi only basis. Given the early, pre-pre-beta condition of the build, it was surprisingly stable and provided a great glimpse into what a cloud device would behave like. My earlier thoughts on stripped down operating systems and cloud centric computing models all emanated from my week with the Skylight prototype. It also was a device that seemed to sell itself. Thin is definitely in and the Skylight is astonishingly thin for a clamshell form factor. Watching the development process and the way the project leader Peter Gaucher was able to keep the device as thin as its initial prototype was remarkable: essentially thinness comes at a price, but Gaucher was able to defend the machine against the forces of thickness and economics.
As soon as we have seed units I hope to get some Skylights into the hands of the Lenovo Blogger Advisory Council for their insights into how they use the device and ways to improve it as it evolves. This represents a very interesting exercise in innovation, one I was honored to have witnessed. It represents and embodies a lot of what makes Lenovo such an interesting place to be: a place where risks are taken and old paradigms are challenged. Is this the be-all, end-all social device? No, but it is a start that marks a radical departure from old familiar models to a new one altogether.
I discussed this category at length with my former Forbes.com buddy Om Malik last week in San Francisco. He had tablet fever to some extent, and was more focused on operating systems issues such as the convergence of Android and Chrome or the presence of Jolicloud. The issue, as I see it, is one that Lenovo SVP Peter Hortensius has called the “wasteland” — the “tweener” space between a smartphone and a netbook — the space where we all are seeking some device about the size of an airplane ticket. The place where the Apple Newton once lived. And the Sony Vaio P series, and even our own prototype Pocket Yoga. We need a big screen to stream our movies and our YouTubes, yet we want to hold it to our ears so we can talk. We need a device that is persistent, that doesn’t need an outlet to survive more than couple hours of constant use, something that we can show off (consumer electronics are fashion statements).
Does Skylight achieve that? We shall see. I know I am ready to move to the category and expect it will, overtime, morph as carrier 3G/4G wireless models change, the cloud becomes more mainstream, and the category achives ubiquity.