SAN JOSE, Calif. 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.