SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A new class of cheaper, smaller netbook computers might upset the IT establishment this year and potentially usher in new players in a hotly competitive market.
The new netbooks, which use less energy, will run on the low-power ARM processor platform now used in nine out of 10 mobile phones, rather than Intel's x86-based Atom chip. The U.K.-based ARM Holdings Plc (ARM.L) licenses the chip technology.
As many as 10 ARM-based netbook models could hit the market this year, according to ARM, which declined to identify specific manufacturers. Major PC players and Asian contract manufacturers alike are interested, analysts say.
Enderle Group analyst Rob Enderle called the new netbooks "incredibly disruptive," saying: "This is a market that puts the existing PC structure at risk."
While analysts say it's not yet clear if consumers will embrace the ARM devices, interest has been galvanized by the emphasis on power efficiency, prices as low as $200 and the promise of anywhere, anytime computing on PCs small enough to slip into a purse.
What's sacrificed is users' familiarity with PC-based interfaces and systems and sheer processing power. The current $300-$400 Atom netbooks are already mainly good for just surfing the Web and less graphics-intensive applications.
"We're right in the middle of a huge shift in the market," said Eric Openshaw, U.S. technology leader for Deloitte LLP.
Openshaw said non-Windows netbooks will need to demonstrate a simple and accessible user interface at the application level if they hope to gain traction with consumers.
Windows XP can't run on ARM, so the new netbooks will have Linux-based software, including, analysts and industry executives say, Google Inc (GOOG.O) Android, which has been used so far in smartphones.
But don't count Microsoft out just yet. Although the software giant declined to comment when asked if it is planning an operating system for the new netbooks, analysts say it could easily enter the market if it chose.
Intel pointed out there are as yet no ARM netbooks on the market and that its Atom chip has a full year's head start.
"We're not slowing down, we fully expect competition and we continue to believe that Atom is the right choice for our customers and consumer," said spokesman Bill Calder.
NEXT WAVEThe still-evolving netbook market is growing thick with players from all over the tech sector. Wireless carriers such as AT&T Inc (T.N) are helping lead the charge, while graphics chipmaker Nvidia Corp (NVDA.O), wireless chipmaker Qualcomm Inc (QCOM.O) and Freescale Semiconductor Inc have all designed ARM-based processors that can be used in netbooks.