Netbooks have lost the plot

netbooks-have-lost-the-plot

First came the promise of the OLPC, then came the Asus Eee PC, and life got good. Now that Pandora’s box has been opened, a hell spawn of so-called netbooks are flooding the market creating confusion, and completely eroding the good work done by the original Eee PC.

I picked up the Asus Eee PC 2G Surf model for R2 700 from Incredible Connection. It comes with a solid state drive of 2Gb, a 7 inch LCD screen, 512Mb of RAM and an Intel Celeron processor. The idea was brilliant — build a low-spec portable notebook capable of running a web browser and e-mail, as well as an office suite (OpenOffice.org). All this for less than the cost of a medium-range cellphone.

This is a good example of applying the Pareto principle (the 80-20 rule): about 80% of the time, most laptop/notebook users are only using 20% of the capability of the machine. So why not build a notebook that only provides that 20% of capability, at a remarkably cheaper price? Since most of our applications are web-based now (such as Google apps, Zoho, etc.), that 20%, which includes web browsing, suddenly becomes very appealing.

When the original Eee PC was released, the demand was high and the market quickly snapped up the little Asus machines, with Asus even claiming to be selling one every six seconds.The rampant success of the original Eee PC spurred Asus and other manufacturers to release better versions of the Eee PC. Intel jumped onto the bandwagon and created the Intel Atom processor, specifically for these netbooks – previously called UMPCs (ultra-mobile personal computers), MIDs (mobile internet devices), mini-notebooks, or mini-laptops. The new processor promised more power, better battery life, and lower cost. Suddenly, a whole slew of netbooks were announced from various manufacturers, all sporting the new Atom chip, and various configurations of hard drives or solid-state drives (SSDs), and a choice of operating systems.

So what is wrong with this picture? Well, for me, the problem starts with the price. Most of the new comers are over R4 000 in price. Well over. You can buy full blown laptops in this price range. These “netbooks” even come with Windows XP or Vista installed, implying that they are full blown laptops, although they perform very poorly at anything more than web browsing and office applications. They don’t know whether they want to be laptops, or netbooks.

While there is a market for ultra-portable laptops, they have completely missed the netbook sweet spot — a web-capable machine about the size of a paper-back novel, weighing less than 1kg, costing less than R3 000. They should have just stuck with the mini-laptop name and left the netbook name for the Asus Eee PC 2G Surf, because quite frankly, nothing else comes close to it’s value for money and purpose-built nature.

I think the manufacturers should go back to the drawing board on their netbook product range. Start with something like the Nokia N810 or the Apple iPod Touch, and scale that up. Here’s how I think they should do it:

  • Use the Arm processor. It is extremely power efficient and is already used many devices such as the Nokia N810, iPod Touch and several cellphones. These devices prove it’s capability for playing media and web browsing, while providing several hours of battery life, or several days if left on standby.
  • Add a lot of RAM. Memory is very cheap nowadays. About 1 gigabyte or more of RAM would be more than adequate. The Nokia N810, for example, has only 128Mb of RAM, and yet is capable of running a complete Linux-based GUI operating system, have several websites open with Flash support and play media at the same time.
  • Add solid state storage. With SSD prices falling rapidly, these can get bigger over time. However, considering that the N810 only has 256Mb of flash RAM, and still fits in a complete operating system with media and web 2.0 capability, even a 2Gb SSD would be more than adequate.
  • Add in a transflexive (sunlight-readable) LCD display with ambient light sensor. A 9 inch display with at least 1 024 x 600 resolution would be ideal here. An iPod-like resistive touch screen would be a nice-to-have.
  • Add in a keyboard, such as the one on the Eee PC 701. This is about as small as a keyboard can get without becoming completely impractical for most users.
  • Add in the hardware features of the modern mobile device. The N810 already has audio (with headphone jack and speakers), Bluetooth, GPS, and Wifi. The iPod touch features accelerometers and a 3D accelerator for smooth user interfaces. Other features to include would be gigabit Ethernet, a multi-touch capable track pad, compass, Wi-Max, and a web camera. A top-end model could even feature 3G/HSDPA with a slot for the SIM card.
  • Add expandability. This means USB ports, memory card slots (at least two), and optionally, an Express Card slot.
  • Use most of the extra space in the chassis for a decent Lithium-Ion battery pack. Due to the lack of need for active cooling of the CPU, and the fact that the ARM-based boards are very compact, there will be more room in the chassis for a large battery pack. Considering that the N810 can play back continuous video for over 20 hours if supplied with a four-cell AA battery pack, this netbook should be able to deliver days of battery life, not hours.

The hardware, believe it or not, is the easy part. The hard part is the software. Luckily, there are several options to choose from:

  • Apple’s OS for the iPhone/iPod touch. Unfortunately it is a closed source and Apple won’t be supporting it on anything but their own hardware, which is a pity, since it’s a great, lightweight, stable, fast and beautiful operating system.
  • A strong contender here would be the Linux-based Maemo. It already runs on the specified hardware, is open source, has Nokia’s backing, and has an active community. It is so lightweight that is makes Ubuntu Netbook Remix look like Vista. It has a Firefox 3 based web browser and some office applications.
  • Microsoft Windows Mobile. This operating system is already supported on ARM processors, and has good third party application support, including Opera browser. No real office suite other than Pocket Office or Documents to go.
  • Nokia’s Symbian OS. A very successful operating system for mobile phones that could scale up well to a netbook.
  • Google’s Android. Although written primarily for mobile phones, it is open source and extremely capable. It also features a user interface to match that of Apple’s iPod. I believe this would be the best choice of software stack for a netbook.

What do we end up with, after this netbook re-think? We have a portable machine, the size of a paper-back novel, designed from the ground up to be great at browsing the web (the full web 2.0, with Flash and Java support), with an open source operating system backed by Google, full integration with Google’s applications, third party application support, a beautiful iPod-like interface that is 3D accelerated, media-playback capability, continuous battery life of over a day and a price point hopefully under R4 000. Now that is what I would call a netbook.

Read the original article at Thoughtleader