Switched On: Connecting mobile, mantle and metal objects (Part 1)

Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Given that venture capitalists generally are not as excited about young companies that sell atoms as opposed to bits, companies innovating in hardware are a rare species at DEMO, the long-running technology startup parade. At this year's spring conference, two companies introduced new devices. The plainly named Always Innovating introduced the Touch Book, a new entrant in the netbook category while the vowel diversity-challenged Avaak introduced the Vue personal video system designed for remote surveillance of a home. Both products cater to an increasingly mobile society that demands digital access on the go and share some similar characteristics, but the states of the market they address could make a major difference for them.

Always Innovating's Touch Book is a lightweight touchscreen computing device that will sell for $299. It's two signature features are a detachable keyboard – enabling the netbook to transform from a traditional clamshell to a "pure" tablet – and exceptional battery life of 10 to 15 hours on a single charge. The versatility of the hardware make the design one of the most appealing consumer tablet computing devices to date although the need to put the battery and processing guts behind the screen results in a thicker top half than one would find on most notebooks of similar size.

Still, one can use the device to casually surf the Web on the couch using the new mobile version of Firefox, show photos as a digital picture frame, or even attach it to a refrigerator using the magnetic backing that the company has put on the tablet. It's a fine collection of atoms, but there's one Atom you won't find inside the Touch Book.

To enable its long battery life, the Touch Book eschews an Intel processor for a Texas Instruments ARM processor. As a result, the Touch Book cannot run Windows, but the hardware designer has embraced openness and open source. The company will ship the device with its own version of Linux with a 3D user interface and the mobile version of Firefox. However, it will enable other operating systems to be installed, including Ubuntu, Android and Windows CE. It's not yet clear, though, how an average consumer would get Android or Windows CE onto the device. Always Innovating also plans to be open in its hardware and will make the device's schematics publicly available.

If a lightweight clamshell touch-typeable QWERTY computer offering exceptional battery life sounds like something with a shot in the market, several had one back a decade ago when companies launched such devices running Windows CE. These included the HP Jornada 820 and the Compaq Aero 8000. Those devices were aimed more at enterprise users and were more than twice the price of the Touch Book. They also didn't have the Touch Book's flexible design (although one product, the Vadem Clio, came close), marketplace pull of on-the-go Web access and applications, or a browser that could hold an LED candle to Firefox. But on the other hand, they also didn't face competition from netbooks in the same price range running full versions of Windows.

The next Switched On will discuss some similarities and contrasts between the Touch Book and the Vue "personal video network" launched at DEMO and assess both products' opportunities and challenges.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own