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Is Dell Building an Android PDA?

By Jack M. Germain
Jul 1, 2009 4:00 AM PT

Here's one of the many questions facing device makers targeting the mini notebook and netbook markets: When business users or consumers want to access the Web on the go, will they be willing to set aside a smartphone or cellphone and instead log on using a next-generation PDA?

Is Dell Building an Android PDA?

Dell may be wagering the answer is yes. The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday the company is developing an Android-based, non-phone device that will run on the ARM architecture instead of an Intel Atom mobile chip. The report was based on interviews with people familiar with the plans.

Dell declined to respond to inquiries on its plans to market such a device.

"Developers looking for a lower-cost solution will turn to ARM and Android. On the carrier side, they realize shipments are falling off," Richard Shin, analyst for IDC, told LinuxInsider.

Smartphone Alternative?

Little is known about Dell's reported plans for a new category of pocket-sized communication device. Less precise rumors have circulated for some time about various phone and PC makers experimenting with alternatives to the popular Apple iPhone and RIM BlackBerry devices, however.

If successful, a non-phone, pocket-sized device could usher in a new generation of PDAs -- personal data assistants that were popular years ago before such devices were combined with cellphones and dubbed "smartphones." PDAs often synchronized documents and other data with users' computers.

A new generation of phoneless pocket devices could allow users to maintain Instant Message conversations and convenient access to Twitter and Facebook posts without having to lug around an ultra-mobile PC or netbook. Current mobile phones that also have Internet connectivity might then be less necessary for many users.

A plethora of devices that connect to the Web are under development, according to Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist for In-Stat. Although he has not seen the Dell device, he has heard that one was under development.

"The Dell device is more like the [iPod touch], and there will be several companies offering them by next year," McGregor told LinuxInsider.

The world is becomimg a Web portal society. We will have many devices that connect to the Web for either a communications medium or content/applications, he said.

Wider Path

In pursuing this path, Dell may be looking for another way to differentiate itself in the netbook market -- though a pocket-sized Internet device is not a netbook, noted Scott Testa, a marketing consultant and professor of marketing at St. Joseph's University.

Still, using Android and the ARM architecture could give product makers such as Dell a lower-cost product. At a time when PC devices and smartphones are converging, a return to the PDA mentality could offer Dell some possibilities, he said.

"There is no license fee and no Microsoft tax to pay for the operating system. I can see an opening for them," Testa told LinuxInsider.

Potential for Disappointment

The expectations for this new line of PDA-style Internet access might meet with high expectations but low satisfaction delivery, cautioned Shin -- think early consumer reaction to Linux-based netbooks.

"Consumers will see a clamshell form factor and will think the device will run applications they are used to using on their computers. The problem is, it won't," Shin said.

Most netbooks, he said, were designed to be a different kind of Internet device, but early adopters expected to see full-powered PC performance from them. When they couldn't deliver, the result was a high rate of returns.

Performance Concerns

In addition, "there are performance issues with the Atom processor. The apps running on an ARM device will have to emulate the Atom processor," said Shin.

Other factors come into play as well, noted Testa. For instance, how will such a non-phone device connect to the Internet? Will Dell bundle access with it via a monthly charge? Will users have to line up their own carrier with a long-term contract?

No Guarantees

The novelty of a new device or a rush to market will be no measure of success for Dell or any other manufacturer, warned Shin.

"Ignore history and you will repeat it. I think it will be a challenge for Dell. A lot of OEMs are looking for this type of solution," Shin said. "Such a low-cost device is not going to be a home run. It could be a recipe for failure."

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