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Over 150 Million Smartbooks by 2015

The smartbooks are coming, the smartbooks are coming.

And boy are they ever. ABI Research is forecasting 163 million smartbooks will ship by 2015, but don't think of this as a whole new category of device spawned by, for example, Apple's forthcoming iPad. The research firm said its smartbook forecast report includes devices across several established categories, including netbooks, mobile Internet devicess (MIDs), tablets and e-books.

One of the key differences in ABI Research's definition is that smartbooks don't run Atom or other derivatives of Intel's x86 processor. Instead, they run an ARM or ARM-compatible processor. In addition, smartbooks are low-powered devices running a mobile operating system that is always connected, either via Wi-Fi or (more often) using cellular or mobile broadband. ABI said the first devices to meet the above definition started to appear in 2008.

Chipmakers Qualcomm and Freescale, which both offer ARM-based CPUs, have been the most active promoters of the smartbook moniker. "The reason the smartbook name came about was to differentiate devices at the processor level," ABI Research analyst Jeff Orr told InternetNews.com. Netbooks, for example, have been chiefly promoted by Intel (NASDAQ: INTC).

"The promise of a smartbook device is that it offers the productivity of a laptop, the instant accessibility of a smartphone and has Internet-centric applications and usage model," said Orr, who noted that ABI's definition is closer to Qualcomm's, which includes broadband connectivity.

"Wi-Fi alone isn't good enough in many parts of the world. You have to include a cellular broadband connection," he said.

Orr said it's important that a clearer definition of smartbooks emerge because "today there is nothing differentiating the smartbook from the categories like netbook and tablet we already have. There has to be some sort of promise as to what a smartbook offers."

Smartbooks, if marketed right, could appeal to buyers looking for something smaller than a typical notebook or something to replace their iPod or portable DVD player.

"The definition will help. And I think there will be some other smartbook ideas and form factors that will broaden the definition," said Orr. "You don't want to constrain the definition. Microsoft came out with a tablet in 2001 and that idea became relegated to something heavy and cumbersome, that's why you hear the term media player today for a new generation of devices."

ABI Research is hosting a free Webinar, "Will Smartbooks and Media Tablets Change the Face of Mobile Computing?" this Thursday.

David Needle is the West Coast bureau chief at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.