ARM netbooks struggle with video, apps

Engineers designing a new generation of ARM/Linux-based netbooks are struggling with two issues crucial to the success of the systems--the platform's poor support for Web video and its fragmented software base.
The results of their work will determine whether the $200 systems expected to ship starting this fall establish a significant new class of computers or frustrate users and create a market backlash.

The top problems are twofold: Adobe Flash--the underpinning of most Web video--does not yet run natively the ARM processor, and the half dozen variants of mobile Linux available for ARM do not support any standard for how they run applications.

Neither issue will be completely resolved before the systems begin hitting the market this fall. However, observers say long term both problems can be minimized if not completely resolved.

In November, ARM and Adobe Systems announced they will deliver sometime in 2009 a version of Flash 10 optimized for mobile ARM devices. A spokesman for Adobe said the company has no update on that work.

"Adobe Flash is heavily used across the Web, and people are working hard on bringing it to ARM, but it's one of the big problems for these systems," said Gregor Berkowitz, president of Moto Development Group (San Francisco), a contract design company working with three clients on ARM/Linux netbooks.

Separately, many Web video sites are transitioning from Flash to the H.264 codec already supported in most ARM-based chips. But that also requires significant work on wrappers and software frameworks for transferring and playing H.264 video over the Web, he said.

Engineers also face hardware limits with video on ARM-based netbooks as the systems explore a range of 7- to 12-inch displays.

"The baseline expectation for video is 30 frames/second, and at that rate every ARM device has different resolutions it can support on different size displays," Berkowitz said. "As screens get bigger, we're pushing the top end of the ARM performance," he added.

The ARM-based SoCs for netbooks launched by Freescale, Nvidia, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments all include video acceleration hardware. Improvements in those chips and in ARM's own Mali graphics and video accelerators will ease the problem over time.

"Units coming this fall will have a risk of being slightly underpowered, though they could have a good user experience," said Berkowitz. "The parts coming next year will eliminate that problem and make platforms very impressive," he added.

Netbooks will try to ride the cloud

Engineers building ARM-based netbooks have their choice of a half dozen mobile Linux environments or they can roll their own. But each one has a slightly different mix of software components and the field lacks a consistent applications framework.

"The field is both crowded and scattered," said Bill Weinberg, a veteran Linux consultant.

"There are about six paradigms for writing a mobile Linux app," Weinberg said. "Until recently, these platforms have not been compete distributions, they were just open source projects built on other open source projects and the seams were meant to show," he said.

In addition, emerging netbook platforms will sport a wide range of different hardware peripherals. The two factors mean an application that might run well on one system could behave poorly or crash on another.

"Even if you sold systems just for email and browsing, you still have to have some compatibility and apps, so you need something at the application framework level, but there's not a lot of standardization there yet," said Weinberg who wrote a white paper on fragmentation in mobile Linux.

Berkowitz said the answer is to design netbooks as appliances with built-in browsers and email clients that tap cloud-based services from carriers or others to access a broader range of applications.

"There isn't a Windows framework for buying and downloading apps" on open Linux systems, said Berkowitz. "So the easier way to look at this is not running apps locally, but running them in a browser, then the challenge becomes how you manage files in the cloud," he said.

That would open up an opportunity for carriers, OEMs or others to provide netbook applications services. In April, AT&T started in offering in Atlanta and Philadelphia x86/Windows netbooks from Acer, Dell and LG for a subsidized price of $49 with a service contract.

"This whole space will get pushed pretty hard," said Berkowitz.

Indeed, the manager of TI's OMAP application processor group suggested many of the early ARM/Linux netbooks will come from cellphone, not notebook OEMs.

Finding the right mobile Linux variant

Weinberg said no one mobile Linux variant is a slam dunk but "I'm actually kind of high on Android.

"The Android marketplace will create pull, and any other environment will suffer in spades the same [fragmented] fate as the Linux desktop on x86," he said.

However, Weinberg takes issue with some of the technology decisions Google made in creating Android. Rather than adopt a native Linux approach, Android is really more like a version of Java, and an atypical one at that, based on the Dalvik virtual machine.

The use of Dalvik avoids Java royalties to Sun. The resulting code is more sophisticated than most other options, but it has its shortcomings and stressors. In a white paper, Weinberg criticized Dalvik for its lack of a native security model and application signing.

"Compared to most smart phone OSes, Android is full featured and good at multitasking, but it tears through battery life," Weisberg said. "I don't think Android is tuned to anything beyond smart phones, but it's being pulled in all these different directions" from netbooks and beyond.

At the Embedded Systems Conference MontaVista Software showed Montebello, a mobile Linux front end it created for Dell. The company said the software is not a packaged offering so much as a "professional services capability."

Dell defined a so-called Blacktop ARM/Linux environment for running a smart phone like browser and email applications on a Latitude notebook as a battery saving alternative to using the x86/Windows environment. Dell has not said yet when or if it will ship such hybrid systems.

The Montebello environment currently does not support Flash or Java. It is running on a TI OMAP 3430 in a stack with flash and DRAM memory.

In addition to its own code, MontaVista has launched a social network called Meld to support engineers trying to quickly create their own custom Linux environments.

Also at ESC, BIOS developer Phoenix Technologies touted its Hyperspace environment as suitable for netbooks. The software was initially targeted at hybrid notebooks as a secure and fast-boot alternative to Windows for some applications. It is based on the company's Linux kernel.

A happier hardware story

Hardware represents the more straightforward and happier part of the ARM/Linux netbook story.

The systems could slash as much as 60 percent off the bill of materials of their x86/Windows counterparts. That's because they use cheaper processors, open source software, and don't require a core logic chip or a hard disk drive. They will probably use memory configurations similar to x86/Windows versions.

Peripheral choices are the biggest wild cards in netbook prices. The size of a display and the decision whether to include a 3G cellular modem will be huge factors.

Below a $300 price tag, the bill of materials for a netbook and a smart phone will be about the same, said Weinberg. That's in part why the elimination of Java software royalties in Android presents a plus, he added.

Indeed a recent teardown showed smart phone and netbook BOMs are converging at about $185.

Berkowitz predicted several OEMs will release ARM/Linux netbooks starting this fall with models using the new Freescale, Nvidia, Qualcomm and TI chips. But whether they will be successful remains an open question.

Weinberg notes that the Palm Foleo was the first attempt at an ARM/Linux netbook. But the system was widely seen as underpowered and uninteresting and was nixed by the company just three months after it was launched in late May 2007.

BY Rick Merritt
Source:EE Times

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