SCOOP! A business-class ThinkPad netbook? “Watch this space” says Lenovo exec…

Lenovo’s IdeaPad netbooks have done well for the company proving popular with enthusiasts as well as winning government contracts to supply an estimated 230000 netbooks to school students in NSW and Victoria.

But the best may be yet to come with a senior Lenovo exec revealing to that the company is looking at releasing a netbook under the ThinkPad brand.

“It’s an area we’re exploring” admitted Matthew Kohut Lenovo’s globe-trotting Worldwide Competitive Analyst “but I can’t comment one way or the other. Watch this space that’s all I can say.”

Kohut says there’s “no question” that the lines are blurring between the popular but low-margin netbooks and higher-profit notebooks. “How do we make sure the value proposition between netbooks and notebooks is clearly delineated?

That’s been a source of much debate within Lenovo. Intel has helped us out with that. They’re pretty adamant that the Atom processor is designed to so some thing very well but if you want full functionality you need to go to a Core processor or (even) a Celeron Mobile for that… although the problem with Celeron is that it’s like a dirty word in the industry.”

A ThinkPad netbook would parlay the brand’s recognition and respect into the business area where Kohut says the slim and lightweight devices are gaining traction.

“Businesses are definitely asking about netbooks they’re wanting them more and more. Business problems whether the economy is good or not remain the same: do more with less be more efficient and all that. This ties in very nicely with netbooks.”

The challenge is how much functionality users expect from a netbook compared to a conventional laptop. Lenovo could deliver a ThinkPad netbook as an up-spec variant of a conventional netbook much as HP did with its consumer-minded Mini 1000 and the more ‘professional’ Mini 2140.

Alternatively Lenovo could release the ThinkPad netbook as an all-new class of device built around Intel’s forthcoming ultra-low voltage processor codenamed ‘Ultra’.

While Intel categorises Ultra as a consumer chip to deliver thin and light notebooks for the mainstream there are already rumours that both Dell and HP will release Ultra-class netbooks with screens between 11 inches and 13.3 inches (at which point the dividing line between a netbook and a notebook seems to disappear completely).

“It’s becoming more interesting across the industry to get bigger screen sizes” Kohut says. “There are people saying why not a 12 inch netbook why not a 14 inch netbook. I’ve even heard someone talking about an 18 inch netbook although I don’t know why!”

(Ironically we saw something very close to the ThinkPad netbook almost a decade ago – only then it was IBM’s WorkPad Z50 Mobile Companion a thin 1.2kg mini-laptop with an 8.2 inch screen running the Windows CE Pro platform. In many ways a ThinkPad netbook would simply be a modern re-interpretation of the same device).

But well before we see a netbook carrying the ThinkPad brand Lenovo’s second-gen IdeaPad netbook will touch down. Expected to be launched next month the IdeaPad S20 is tipped to sport a 12.1 inch screen and run on Intel’s updated Atom N280 processor paired with the superior graphics of the GN40 chipset.

While Kohut didn’t share those details with APCmag he did tip that the S20 would include an option for integrated 3G which locally would probably mean a partnership with Vodafone.

Kohut also said that the S20 would include the same Instant On fast-boot Linux environment as the IdeaPad S10E model supplied to the NSW education tender (this isn’t available on the general consumer model S10G).

Instant On is a rebranded and slightly customised version of Splashtop and the S20 version will include embedded Linux drivers for the 3G modem to “allow you to surf via 3G without booting Windows” Kohut says.

“Windows takes 1-2 minutes to boot on a netbook. Instant On lets you boot in five seconds and be productive in five seconds.”