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Does OLPC have a future in the smartbook era?

December 28, 2009 2 comments

OLPC is widely known as the organization which – indirectly – started the netbook revolution by pioneering affordable, mobile computing devices. The second iteration of their low-cost educational laptop, the XO-1.5,  is about to be released. “Released” in a sense, that it will become available to large scale educational projects but not to individuals or smaller, grass-roots projects. The current lean production cost of the XO-1 is at around $180, the XO-1.5 may go below that if a sufficient volume is achieved. The XO-1.5 is expected to provide full internet browsing with Flash support, ebook reading and the more traditional learning functions of the Sugar Learning Platform. The XO-1.5 will provide a Gnome or XFCE based Linux desktop in addition to Sugar. One of the goals of OLPC to make the XO be able to provide day-long battery life for students (although the current version of the hardware only provides ~3.5-4.5hrs of use with web browsing on wifi.

Smartbooks is an upcoming, low-cost consumer device category. These machines are expected to cost significantly less than current netbooks (sub $200-250 end-user price) while supporting the same functions (full web browsing, ebook reading, playing video/audio). Smartbooks will likely come with Android, full-desktop running Linux operating systems or Windows CE. Since these computers are based on ultra power-efficient ARM system-on-chip designs, they are likely to provide at least day-long battery runtimes (12-16 hrs with browsing on wifi is promised by several vendors).

As can be seen, capabilities and cost-wise, smartbooks coming in 2010 get very close to the upcoming OLPC XO-1.5. Some of the smartbook versions (based on Tegra 2 or other Cortex A9) will way outperform the XO-1.5 in processing power and battery runtime.

Naturally, the comparisson is more complex than this, since the XO has some special features, which are not planned for every currently known smartbook designs. The most notable are:

  • Daylight-capable PixelQi screen for working/reading in direct sunlight. Some of the smartbooks will likely also come with PixelQi screens.
  • Rugged industrial design with rubberized keyboard. There is no currently known smartbook product which puts special emphasis on usage in harsh environment but all ARM designs are fanless and it is likely that a lot of smartbooks will come with smaller capacity SSD drives so smartbooks will be likely less prone to typical laptop failures that the average netbook.
  • Special educational software (Sugar). The Sugar Learning Platform is now available for a set of “normal” Linux distributions as an alternative desktop environment, next to Gnome and KDE, so with minimal effort, Sugar and activities can be made usable on smartbooks as well.

Again, it seems that a smartbook derivative should be able to play the role of an XO in an educational environment.

Two of the huge advantages of smartbooks is availability and economies of scale.They are planned to be available from a host of sales channels, most notably from 3G service operators at subsidized prices. This means, that some of the smartbooks will likely come at zero initial price, only a 2 year data contract will need to be signed. At the targeted end-user prices (sub $250) smartbooks will be immensely popular as secondary home computers and mobile companions (just like netbooks but even more) which means that economies of scale will be reached quickly and prices will go further down.

In contrast, OLPC products are not available for individuals or small projects and currently there are no major project sales at OLPC. This means that there is no easy way to reach economies of scale (unless, suddenly a lot of countries start ordering XOs, which is unlikely). G1G1 programs will not work again, the first was a success, the last one was a complete failure. (G1G1= give 1, get 1 = donate 400$, you get 1 machine for yourself and 1 other machine is sent to the developing world as your donation).

All of these factors point into one diection: If OLPC wants to stay as a relevant IT/educational effort, it should realign its hardware and “business” strategy taking advantage of  the upcoming smartbook revolution.

To a certain extent, this seems to be happening. OLPC is planning to switch to ARM by 2011 with their XO-1.75 product and continue this line with the XO-3 in 2012. There is not much information about the XO-1.75 but it seems that it will be based on a Marvell ARM chip. Since Marvell hasn’t announced plans for Cortex A9 based products, we can assume, that OLPC will use one of the smartbook-oriented Armada (a Cortex A8 SOC).

Software-wise, OLPC has already improved its position by providing Gnome and Sugar as equal desktop alternatives on top of the default Linux OS shipping with the XO-1.5. This way, the XO can be a much more versatile tool when needed. Even Microsoft’s Windows XP is expected to run well on this machine, which may be appealing to some of their prospective customers.

These steps are certainly necessary but I would suggest a much more aggressive startegy:

  • Stopping as much in-house hardware development as possible. Partnering with a smartbook producer, taking a polished, tested ARM Cortex A9 board design without any further customization. I would skip the Cortex A8 processors in order to ensure better performance than the VIA C7-M in the XO-1.5.
  • The industrial design may be kept at OLPC but I suggest scrapping those extreme designs which has been recently circulated for the XO-3. Use a simple, 10″ touch tablet form factor or the current laptop design with a 10″ PixelQi screen.
  • Using a Linux distro already customized for the said board and add Sugar only as an alternative to the default desktop environment.
  • Sell the XOs to everyone in the developed world, ensure the widest possible availability. A $50 donation markup over the costs is reasonable but G1G1 style sales attempts should be strictly avoided. If sufficient sales can be generated, that will make sure that the project stays known to everyone.

This way, a lot of development costs could be spared and OLPC could come up with an ARM based XO product in 2010, long ahead of schedule. A move like this would revitalize the community around OLPC and put the organisation firmly back to the map of relevance.

Categories: gadgets, olpc

Desktop Java applications on smartbooks: what to expect?

December 26, 2009 Leave a comment

Smartbooks are an upcoming line of affordable, mobile computing devices. Their use case scenarios fit in well with currently popular Java desktop applications (e.g.: Azureus/Vuze bittorrent client, RSSOwl feed aggregator…etc) and there are still a lot of websites using Java applets or webstartable Java applications for auxiliary functions (like mass upload of files). Moreover, many company intranets contain desktop Java based technologies (e.g. fast data entry forms, GIS mapping clients…etc). Due to this, affordable, Java capable devices may spur wider adoption of mobile computing within companies. Finally, the new JavaFX rich internet application framework (an Adobe Flash competitor) seems to be heavily supported by Oracle, so we can expect advancements on JavaFX deployments on public and intranet websites. JavaFX has similar Java requirements as Java applets.

For these reasons, it is interesting how smartbooks can be expected to work with desktop Java software.

Since the upcoming smartbooks are mostly based on ARM, we need to analyse how Java is supported on the latest ARM system-on-chip (SOC) processors.

Originally, ARM created dedicated Java support in their processors through its Jazelle technology. This provided hardware acceleration in a CLDC profile environment (Java edition for smartphones and other embedded applications). Jazelle provides better startup times until the Hotspot compiler can compile Java bytecode to native ARM code. If the device is memory constrained, it is possible to use Jazelle alone, without the Hotspot compiler. Some details about this can be found here.

In a smartbook environment CLDC is not enough, the full Java Standard Edition is expected in order to make the computer be able to run complex desktop programs like Azureus.

A number of upcoming smartbooks are based on the Qualcomm Snapdragon platform (which is roughly an ARM Cortex A8 level processor). A recent development (June 2009) that Java standard edition has been ported and optimized for the Snapdragon platform (details here). It is unknown if the Snapdragon uses Jazelle and the optimizations include Jazelle but it is likely since other Qualcomm ARM processors include this technology. This is encouraging from the Java perspective (the article mentions 32x improvement in application performance) but the Snapdragon and Cortex A8 processors may be generally not fast enough for complex applications.

The more powerful smartbooks will be based on dual core Cortex A9 processors (like the nVidia Tegra 2). These are generally assumed to be comparable to latest Atoms in performance. For this processor type, Sun has recently demonstrated their optimized Java 6 Standard Edition environment (2009 Oct, details are here). Cortex A9 processors include Jazelle by default and it is likely that SOC manufacturers will also include them in their end products.

Conclusion: With proper customizations by the device manufacturer, Java applications may perform better on Cortex A8/A9 based ARM systems than on comparable Atom chips because of the inherent Jazelle hardware support and the ARM specific optimizations done by Sun. The safe bet – from the Java perspective – would be on dual core Cortex A9 based systems since these will certainly have the necessary processing power for desktop applications.

The success of smartbooks remains to be seen but it is safe to say that Java will have good support on these systems and customers of such machines may expect reasonable performance from their Java applications.

Categories: gadgets, java

Cortex A8: insufficient processing power?

December 26, 2009 1 comment

Today, I watched a video about a prototype Wistron smartbook called the Pbook (see the video here) which is a Snapdragon based machine. The Snapdragon is roughly comparable to ARM Cortex A8 based SOCs like the Marwell Armada and the TI OMAP3.

The machine was running a Linux variant with a lightweight desktop environment (I believe it was XFCE).

The boot process seemed quite slow and the machine very unresponsive in general.

If the video represents the processing power of the Snapdragon realistically, I have to say, it will not be sufficient to run “real” desktop environments on Linux. This is a problem, because people will expect laptop-like behaviour from laptop-looking devices.

These machines may run Android snappily but Android is currently optimized for smartphones and thus may not fulfill user expectations. (It would certainly not fulfill mine)

It is possible, that when it comes to ARM system-on-chips, only the dual-core Cortex A9 based SOCs will be suitable for being used in smartbooks/netbooks (like the Tegra 2). However, it seems that a lot of producers have already chosen A8 based SOCs (for example the Lenovo smartbook for AT&T with Snapdragon).

Potentially, even A8 based systems can be fast enough if an optimized Linux edition is shipped with them but producers should be very careful to ship systems powerful enough to make their users reasonably satisfied with their responsiveness.

[Update: 2010-JAN-01]

After watching this video, the picture has become a bit clearer. The video is about the commercially available (only in Japan) Sharp Netwalker PC-Z1 which uses a Cortex A8 based processor and runs a full Gnome desktop with Firefox and Abiword. Boot time is not very fast (~90secs) but since you can suspend-resume this machine, it is not very important. Firefox cold  starts (first start) in about 10 seconds and warm starts (second start) in about 5 seconds. This is not very snappy but acceptable. OpenOffice Spreadsheet cold starts in about 50 secs which is rather on the unacceptable side. The Netwalker sports only 512Mb of RAM which is at the minimum for the Gnome desktop. Warm applications starts could be helped with more memory. Cold starts could be helped with more memory and some configurable pre-fetching. This is mostly in-line with my earlier assumptions.

Categories: gadgets

Promising smartbooks with Nvidia Tegra2

December 25, 2009 Leave a comment

Quite strangely, I find myself waiting for CES 2010. Not that I am a big fan of electronics shows (or planning to attend) but this CES is special since several notable companies seem to be making important product announcements at it.

One of these companies is Nvidia which is announcing the second generation of its Tegra system-on-chip (SOC) processors. Moreover, it very much seems that the product announcement will be coupled with actual end-product announcements from a set of companies.

Why is Tegra 2 so interesting?

It is interesting because it will help creating a new product category, most often referred as smartbooks. These are practically netbooks with very good battery life, integrated 3G connectivity and a very appealing price tag (sub $250). Tegra 2 processors are based on ARM’s Cortex A9 core design and are coupled with nVidia’s own graphics technology.

According to nVidia, smartbooks based on Tegra 2 should be able to play 3 Full HD (1080p) video streams in parallel, without major framedrops. This means that the machine can play a 1080p video and run some power-hungry application (e.g. a Bittorrent download) in parallel. I assume that performance wise, the dual Cortex A9 core of the Tegra 2 coupled with 1 Gb of RAM will be enough to run average netbook software snappily (OpenOffice, Skype, Firefox, chat-client). All of this without a noisy fan (ARM based systems usually don’t need active cooling) and with 8-16 hours of battery runtime.

For me, such a machine would constitute the ideal web-browser + video player + ebook-reader + bittorrent home computer. Ideally in the tablet factor. My current favourite is the Notion Ink tablet (although this company seems to have the least chance to actually deliver.)

Generally, the Tegra 2 will spur some competition in the Atom dominated netbook space. Originally, netbooks were promised as the affordable computing for everyone (started by OLPC).  Unfortunately, netbooks are still not really affordable. Their price isn’t going down but rather stagnate or rise slightly. This means that there is no competition, which is likely due to Intel’s domination of the market segment (by its Atom processors).

Tegra 2 and the other new ARM based solutions (Snapdragon, Armada, OMAP) may be the long awaited competitors which result in really affordable computers for the general public.

Categories: gadgets
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