For a device that’s supposed to do Firefox, Skype and not much more, an underpowered PC with a touchscreen isn’t going to accomplish much. For one thing, Firefox is a huge performance drain and a memory hog to boot that underpowered hardware (even on-par with an Eee) simply won’t support and for another, there’s no way to get PC hardware down to the sub-$200 price range.
What TechCrunch wants – whether they know it or not – is an oversized PDA, not an underpowered PC. And it’s not just a question of semantics, it’s a question of foundations and principles – and it makes a huge difference in terms of end-user experience and the bottom line.
For the functionality that TechCrunch is trying to pack into this opensource, mass-market web gadget, there’s nothing that wouldn’t work better, faster, and cheaper on specialized hardware rather than on generic PC components.
While the world is now in the midst of a touch-screen craze, it’s important to keep in mind when and where that works. For a web browser and a VoIP client, a touchscreen doesn’t provide much added value, but it does add quite a hefty amount to the bottom line. A couple of buttons at the top/side of the device that provide basic functionality (Go/Dial, Stop/End) would certainly suffice for most purposes. A thin slide-out keyboard is far-cheaper and more user-friendly than an onscreen keyboard, and would make things like entering site addresses and using email clients and Google Docs quite enjoyable.
A PDA-style ARM processor, running software compiled for the ARM platform could provide a more satisfactory end-user experience with regards to performance and can come in smaller form-factors and/or as embedded systems.
It’s important to bear in mind the difference between consumer electronics and a computer. Whereas Asus had to keep their Eee x86 so that it can run whatever a a PC user could demand from it, a web browsing tablet only needs to run what the manufacturer intends it to. In hardware design, there’s a constant compromise between flexibility and complexity which is directly tied to price, size, and ease-of-use.
A tablet designed to surf the web and run Skype doesn’t need to do anything else; but it shouldn’t do anything else if price and size are of any concern. It’s easy to get caught up imagining a device that can do anything and everything; but you can only go so far before things begin to spiral out of control.