ARM-based systems and the Android open-source OS are helping netbook and PMP suppliers to capitalize on the iPad’s popularity. The latest tablet PCs from China have resistive touchscreens and 720 or 1080p playback.
Apple’s iPad is reshaping and energizing the netbook and portable media player industries in China.
The Sangda Electronic Market in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, has been a reliable barometer of the consumer electronics industry’s pulse. It was a lively marketplace for white-box netbooks and mobile Internet devices until H2 2009, when the crowds started to dwindle and many sellers closed shop because of waning demand.
But just three months after the iPad was released, Sangda was revitalized and once again became a bustling trading center, this time for devices and tablets that look and function very much like an iPad. New shops opened and a recently decorated second floor now displays mostly tablet PCs. Buyers not just from mainland China but even Hong Kong, Taiwan and neighboring countries flock to Sangda, all eager to score nifty tablets at much more affordable prices.
Netbooks and mobile Internet devices are still available, but there are just a handful of stalls offering them and fewer models are on hand.
Sangda’s transformation is a reflection of changes in China’s portable electronic devices industry.
ARM, Android spur development of iPad-like tablets
The iPad is generally regarded as more powerful and user-friendlier than a smartphone. Compared with a netbook or a laptop, it is lighter and has a battery life. Mobile Internet devices were once touted as the bridge between smartphones and laptops, but their high cost, short battery life and limited OS and software options made it difficult for them to gain acceptance in the mainstream. Save for the price, the iPad does not have such drawbacks. This development has consequently opened the door for white-box makers in China to develop their own, lower-cost versions of the iPad.
Netbook companies were one of the first to launch touchscreen tablets sans keypads. The devices were fitted with the same hardware and OS as netbooks, but had decreased user experience and convenience. They were more expensive as well, which made it difficult to gain mainstream acceptance.
Slate tablets fitted with ARM-based systems made for a viable solution, particularly since Apple’s iPads have an Arm Core CPU. Additionally, unlike ARM-based mobile Internet devices that ran on Windows CE or Linux, the new tablets have an Android OS, which is generally regarded as the OS that can compete head-on with Apple’s iOS in the smartphone arena.
But although ARM-based CPUs have advantages over x86 structures, they have weak multimedia capability and support Windows CE and Mobile, and Linux. There are very few applications that run on Windows CE and Linux. Windows Mobile is expensive, costing between $10 and $20 per unit, and is still not regarded as a suitable option for smartphones.
The release of the Android OS strengthened ARM-based CPUs’ smartphone capabilities. Because the free OS is open source, developers can create a multitude of applications for a richer multimedia experience.
Despite the fact that Android is open source, most of the available applications were developed by industry leaders, including HTC and Motorola. Such companies will not share their codes and experiences developing the applications with competitors. As such, China makers need to work closely with design houses in developing their own applications.
Further, not all netbook and PMP makers have the capability to develop tablets running on the Android OS. Such companies also turn to design houses that specialize in smartphones for R&D assistance.