The netbook, the smart phone, and the future of personal computing
The netbook is a new category of laptop computer that is really a refreshing of an old category. Starting with the ASUS eeePC introduced in 2007, several major laptop manufacturers have joined the fray, and the category has exploded. The current set of netbooks are a re-entry into what is a very old category centered around mobility. What the current set includes is connectivity.
The first ultraportable of note was the Radioshack TRS-80 Model 100.
It was portable and had a full keyboard. It featured a wordprocessor and Microsoft Basic. The Atari Portfolio and the HP95LX brought computing into the coat pocket, and the culmination of this was the Psion Series 5 which was tiny but touch typable. I used it to write my consult notes during residency and maintained a database of frequent fliers. The hospital had HP printers with infrared ports allowing me to print out my notes wirelessly.
Psion went on to create the Psion netbook and holds copyright over the name. It is a shame that they gave up the personal computer business after developing the most stable portable operating system (EPOC) and software set ever created. For example, their spreadsheet program, part of an Office compatible suite, took up 22k of memory. My Psion could run over twenty programs concurrently without crashing. EPOC became Symbian which powers Nokia and Sony-Ericksson phones. Having given up the business, they are now chasing the netbook ghost by filing cease and desist letters to websites and businesses that use the word netbook.
I used to own a Psion netbook and it was fantastic to type on with incredible keyboard feel. It was fast, and had instant on -booting up was instantaneous like a cell phone, not like a computer with the minute of bootup time typical for a Windows computer. The EPOC office suite was integrated and allowed cutting and pasting of graphs into documents that would update with changes in the data -this was rock stable and again, took up only a few hundred kilobytes (not megabytes) of memory.
With AA batteries, the Series 5 would run up to 40 hours. The netbook had a PC card slot for a WiFi card giving it wireless internet back in 1999.
I believe Microsoft killed the portable computer industry for about ten years with their Windows CE operating system. Microsoft powered clamshell computers were popular for a while but were difficult to use and crashed frequently. I owned a fairly advanced PocketPC clamshell, the NEC 790, but was frustrated by its instability, it’s tendency to freeze and crash, and worst of all lose data, but the full keyboard and instant on capability were enough of a plus to keep me interested for a while.
The salient features of portability, keyboard for human hands, instant on, long battery life, full resolution landscape screen, and wireless internet with full capability -Flash, Quicktime, WMV and other multimedia features, are the killer features of the modern netbook. None of the currently available netbooks (Acer, HP, Dell, MSI, ASUS, and now Sony) fit the bill.
All are based on the Intel Atom processor. This is a low voltage processor that integrates graphics which translates into slow -how slow? About a hair faster than Centrino Mobile (laptops circa 2005) when running Windows XP. It definitely won’t be lighting up the specs compared to dual core laptops, but it is “good enough,” especially compared to how we used to access the internet via dialup.
Most of the netbooks come with Windows XP. The whole netbook category along with resistence to upgrading from the coporate side has kept Windows XP alive despite the presence of Vista. A few of the netbooks are presented with a scaled down version of Vista. Having stayed away from Vista like the plague, I can’t say first hand if it’s good or bad, but the word from people using the first generation HP netbooks which ran Vista on the slower VIA processor is that it is slow. This goes against the concept of a fast-boot, efficient, fast running machine.
Linux was offered on the first generation of netbooks, but as they became popular, Microsoft made Windows XP licenses available for these netbooks, essentially killing off Linux on netbooks. This is unfortunate, because Linux starts up quicker and runs more efficiently on netbooks. OpenOffice, an office suite that is available for free, runs very well on Linux. The only downside is there is no iTunes for Linux, but the bulk of the needs are met through open source and usually free software. The great thing about Linux is that the computer are customizing the operating system for their product. The new HP Mini 1000 just presented at CES with a highly customized interface. We are all use to this with the Macintosh, but also with cell phones. In fact, this is a bit of a return to the days of yore, when computer makers created the box and the software.
What does this mean? The netbook is in evolution. It is somewhere between a laptop and a smartphone. The laptop offers the larger screen, USB ports, and a keyboard. The smartphone offers instant on, extreme portability, omnipresent connectivity, long battery life, and great integration between software and hardware. The netbook is slowly moving toward this end, becoming less a commodity, and more a finely honed tool.
Do I recommend a netbook? Depends. They are easier to carry than a laptop and offer the ability to work anywhere. My Acer One netbook cost less than $400, and has a battery life of over 6 hours, has a 160gB hard drive, and has Wifi. It runs Windows XP which has its faults, but it runs iTunes, turning my netbook into a large screen iPod where I can watch movies and TV shows. With Skype, I can have video chats with family and friends wherever WiFi is available. What is really neat is cloud computing being embraced by Google, Apple, and others. It moves the work onto the browser, and makes it platform agnostic. The problem is the current generation of netbooks are still just small, slightly slower Windows laptops.
The future is the next generation of netbooks which will feature more solid state memory, customized Linux operating systems, and 3G or WiMax high speed internet that is integrated. The solid state memory or SSD (solid state disks) have no moving parts, are fast, and more energy efficient getting you closer to instant on. The customized operating system means that your hardware is more tightly integrated with the software, much like a cellphone. The 3G or WiMax type high speed internet means you can go anywhere untethered from a WiFi network. You can buy netbooks that feature 20Gb SSD’s (solid state disks) with Linux, but these basically disappeared after some muscling in by Microsoft. Windows 7 promises a smaller footprint to be able to run on netbook-like gear, but it completely misses the point. You don’t buy a car from BMW and run it on an engine from GM. You want the software to run seamlessly with the hardware, and this is much more difficult under Windows.
Apple is still digesting this arena. The Newton eMate 300 was an effort by Apple to create an instant on clamshell laptop, but was quickly killed by Steve Jobs upon his return along with the Newton OS and the great Newton 2100. MacBook Air has some netbook features, but fails in it basic concept as another, albeit beautiful, laptop. Ideally, iPhone/iPod Touch would be the platform for it’s netbook, but I don’t see it going that way because of Steve Job’s aversion to buttons. No, this category will be populated by manufacturers looking to capitalize on Apple’s deafness and blindness to this category. BTW, this blog entry was written entirely on my netbook running OpenOffice and uploaded via the Google Chrome browser.