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Cloud services give tablet vendors a chance to distance themselves from Apple

Tablets are the only topic of conversation in the world of mobile devices right now, and it is easy to forget that, at the start of the year, the buzz

By PETER WHITE

Published: 18 November, 2010

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Tablets are the only topic of conversation in the world of mobile devices right now, and it is easy to forget that, at the start of the year, the buzz was all about ‘smartbooks’. These were the category du jour at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, as Qualcomm and Freescale coined the name and tried to stamp their mark on a new type of gadget geared to always-on web connectivity and cloud services. The smartbook in its original form has been largely swept away by tablet fever and enthusiasm for all things keyboard-less, but the need for a form factor that is optimized for the rising tide of browser/cloud apps and behaviors remains. The ‘cloudbook’, as envisaged by Google, looks set to fit the bill, and to create another mobile web category that could become almost as large a market as the tablet by 2016.

Google aims to make its second operating system, Chrome OS, the key platform for these fully cloud-oriented gadgets, which will often have physical keyboards but will have limited local storage and apps, and rely heavily on streaming and browser-based services. Other systems targeting this space, however ill-defined its form factors, include the Intel/Nokia MeeGo OS and HP’s webOS, plus a rumored brand new operating system lurking in Microsoft’s labs.

Chrome OS is not shadowy any more though, and CEO Eric Schmidt told this week’s Web 2.0 conference that it would arrive “any week”. He said the two OSs could be distinguished clearly by their input methods, making it clear that initial ‘cloudbooks’ would have keyboards. "Android is optimized for things that involve touch, Chrome OS is focused on keyboard based solutions. That's how the market is evolving,” said Schmidt.

Whether or not they release cloudbooks in the first wave, all the mobile device makers are keen to extend their reach into the cloud, even with existing phones and tablets. One of the most interesting developments comes from ZTE, which has released an Android tablet with an accompanying phone (which attaches to the tablet and is mainly used for calls). The ZTE Light is geared to help operator’s deliver services based on the emerging RCS and IMS standards, across wired and wireless networks – very much in line with the moves towards multiscreen web and content offerings that span broadband, IPTV and mobile.

IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) is the full-blown standard architecture for supporting all-IP offerings across many different networks and devices, but is only being deployed by a few flagship carriers, such as Verizon Wireless, at this stage, even for LTE. RCS (Rich Communications Services) is seen by some as a more gradual stepping stone towards IMS, supporting the roll-out of selected IP services like VoIP. The ZTE Light includes an RCS client and runs Android 2.2, with connectivity via 3G, Wi-Fi, FTTx and xDSL. The first carrier to sign up for it is Telia, also the operator of the world’s first commercial LTE network, in Sweden. ZTE is marketing the product as the endpoint of its zMILE (Multimedia Integrated Life Experience) platform, which includes all its IMS-based core network elements.

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