Intel has definite ideas about how it wants small laptops based on its Atom processors to evolve, but a senior company executive readily concedes that the market -- in the form of consumers and companies that buy these machines -- will ultimately decide what happens next with these devices.
When hardware makers build a small laptop, or netbook, based on the Atom netbook platform, they are generally bound by constraints that limit certain specifications, such as a screen size that doesn't exceed 10.2 inches. These guidelines are meant to segment the laptop market and define a product category that is different from mainstream laptops.
"They are not so much constraints. We are trying to frame the category that we're trying to encourage," said Mooly Eden, vice president and general manager of Intel's mobility group.
Cannibalization of mainstream laptop sales is also a concern. Intel doesn't want netbooks to supplant larger, more powerful laptops based on more capable -- and more expensive -- Intel processors. That has happened to some degree, with Intel estimating it accounts for approximately 20 percent of netbook sales.
Netbooks are intended for basic computing tasks, like e-mail and Web surfing. But they have grown larger and more powerful over time, and some users find them sufficiently capable to serve as their primary computers. By keeping netbook screen sizes in check, Intel wants to limit the cannibalization of laptop sales and manage user expectations.
"If you use a netbook with a bigger screen, people expect a standard notebook. The responsive of the system might be disappointing," Eden said.
That hasn't stopped other companies from trying to give Atom-based netbooks bigger screens and more computing muscle. For example, Dell sells an Atom-based laptop with a 12-inch screen, called the Mini 12, that it bills as a "laptop/netbook" and graphics chip maker Nvidia's GeForce Ion brings high-end multimedia and graphics capabilities to Atom.
Intel wasn't particularly impressed.
"You saw some people trying to experiment with Atom and a bigger screen and stuff like this. Try to open the system, open more windows. Try to open some more demanding applications, and I believe you will see the responsiveness is not what we were planning for," Eden said.
Eden believes Intel struck the right balance between computer performance and battery life with the Atom platform. In Intel's view, bigger screens and more powerful graphics chips upset that carefully constructed balance, even if some users crave these features.
This is where rivals Advanced Micro Devices and Via Technologies sense an opportunity to push their own offerings. Both companies have released chips designed for thin and light laptops with bigger screens, such as Samsung Electronics's Via Nano-based NC20 laptop and Hewlett-Packard's Pavilion dv2, which uses AMD's Athlon Neo processor.
But Intel hasn't wavered in its vision of what an Atom-based netbook should look like, and believes end users will agree.
"If you ask me, our solution will be the majority of solutions because it is optimized, but everyone can do their experiments and the market will decide," Eden said.
Companies that try to tweak the platform by increasing screen size or adding better graphics also end up reducing the battery life of these machines.
"It's not magic. If you want to get more performance, you will pay with more transistors, you will pay with more leakage, you will pay with more power. You will end up with [the netbook] being slightly thicker with lower battery life," he said.
Instead of upgraded specifications, Intel is pushing netbooks towards thinner and lighter demands with Pine Trail, the next version of the platform built around the upcoming Pineview version of Atom. Unlike the current versions of Atom used in netbooks, Pineview integrates a memory controller and graphics core with the processor, features that are designed to boost performance and save power.
"We're trying to take this category to the next level and I will not be surprised if you see even the netbook space will be shaped differently because, again, we can give better battery life, we can give you better performance. We can give you smaller form factors," Eden said.