Intel is ready to push the second generation of its low-cost Classmate laptops into the North American market, but industry observers are mixed about the new initiative's likelihood of success.
The Classmate was initially developed as a for-profit, generic Windows PC for schools in developing countries and positioned against the One Laptop Per Child initiative's XO-1 device, a competition that has been marked by no small amount of sniping between advocates on either side.
With this week's announcement that Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel plans to have Classmates in schools and on retail shelves by the end of the year, the device officially becomes part of Intel's new narrative around the mobile PCs it calls "Netbooks." Netbooks, along with the more clumsily monikered "Nettops" are defined by Intel as low-cost Internet-centric computing devices built around the chip maker's recently unveiled Atom brand of low-power processors set to ship in the coming months.
Intel says the success of similar products like the EeePC from Taipei-based computer builder Asus shows that there is a North American market for its Classmates. Mercury Research analyst Dean McCarron agrees.
"There clearly is a market in developed countries for what Intel's calling the Netbook. The EeePC did so well in the fourth quarter, it shows that there's a very present market for the device in the market," said McCarron.
The analyst added that while he projects broad demand for such low-cost mobile devices, distributors and integrators will likely find the quickest path to success with the Classmate in the education space, for which it was initially built.
But Equus Computer Systems' Joe Toste isn't so sure that such a barebones device meets the computing demands of U.S. users, at least not in volume.
"I just don't think the Classmate, as it's currently built, has a play in the U.S. market. I could be wrong," said Toste, VP of marketing at the Minneapolis-based system builder, an Intel OEM partner.
He said the device could be attractive as an introductory computer at the elementary school level, but guessed it wouldn't have much appeal in the part of the education vertical Equus serves.
"We're selling more to secondary schools and colleges. Those guys aren't going to take a toy like that," he said of the Classmate.
Toste's skepticism reflects doubts raised by several industry observers. Beyond the computing limitations of the low-cost device, the Classmate is clearly packaged to attract young users. Intel, for its part, hasn't said whether it will redesign the look of its North American Classmates to appeal to older buyers.