Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Rise of the Netbook

April 8, 2009 by · 14 Comments 

Google Docs on Asus Eee PC
Image by Adrian Short via Flickr

I frequently go to conferences and tech gatherings. Because of the type of people that go to these events, you can usually see a cross section of the latest and greatest gear (along with corporate issue gear). One trend that I’ve seen change in the past few months is an increasing number of netbooks arriving on the scene.

Early last year, if you didn’t have a macbook at some of these events, you probably had a work-issued laptop. This year however, I see an even mix of people on netbooks, macs, and corporate PCs (cPCs). In addition, on the street I see more and more people intrigued by netbooks than by any other computer. I was in Selfridges this past weekend and in the basement (where the tech is) all the other computers were somewhat ignored except the corner where the netbooks were.

So what’s the thing with netbooks then?

Firstly, lets define what a netbook is, and I’m not going to use wikipedia for this one. I’ll just use my definition. Correct me (in the comments) if I’m wrong.

A netbook is a cheap, small, and somewhat underpowered laptop with good battery life designed for almost exclusive use of web-based applications and services. By underpowered, I mean, what a top-of-the-line 2004 laptop would have probably performed at.

The fact is, there is no true definition. Even with the current crop of netbooks and those only a year old, performance varies from not being able to play back video well to playing video as a current laptop would (will get even better with Intel’s new N280). The spectrum between the netbooks is just way too wide right now. On one extreme, you have Linux-powered ‘true’ netbooks, and on the other WinXP-powered mini-computers from Sony (P Series) that cost just as much as laptop. The only ‘soft’ rule at this point, seems to be price, which hovers around no more than 300 GBP / 450 USD on average.

So if it isn’t the hardware that defines it, then what is a netbook?

I think a netbook then is an expendable piece of wireless hardware that allows you to be even-more connected (than you already are) by the sheer nature of not caring about losing or damaging your hardware.

I have a 15 inch Macbook, for example. It’s weight and value prevent me from throwing it in my backpack and bashing it around town whipping it out whenever I feel like checking email or doing something on the web ala super-duper smartphone sort of way. If I had a netbook, I’d probably be more ‘free’ in how I use my web connectivity. I’d probably carry my netbook with me more than my laptop to conferences and feel less fear about leaving it behind in a dodgy hotel.

This isn’t only because of the value of the laptop, it is also because of the value of the data contained therein. My Macbook has all of my data. Yes, I have backups, but it has more than I really need while on the road vs what I’m afraid of losing. A netbook, on the other hand, would still allow me to access those documents I have on Google Docs for working on the road, those pictures I have on Flickr to share, or my emails that are on Gmail or other web-mail.

The rest of the time, whether it be on my macbook, work computer, or elsewhere, I spend surfing the net. I check weather, look at bike stuff, read the news, see the occassional YouTube video, etc. A netbook is perfectly fine at doing that.. so why bother bringing my expensive, heavy, and emotionally-valuable laptop?

Another topic that is equally important is security. Whilst the WinXP netbooks are no different security-wise from their bigger brothers (I’ll ignore the Linux versions for now), because of the limited disk space typical in a netbook, people generally just use the browser for most things, deferring ‘installs’ for their ‘main’ PC. This usually means less data to lose when things go wrong and less apps installed that can do wrong. I could totally see netbooks being issued to corporate road-warriors in the future as ways of seriously curtailing data leakage. Lost laptop? No worries, all that was on it was a simple OS and a web browser with shortcuts, just revoke the security keys associated with the corporate web-apps.

Ok, so I’ve justified why a netbook might be a worth while additional computer to the one you already have… but can it be your only computer?

Soon. Yes. I’m going to say that when Windows 7 comes out with their netbook version, I, and many others will seriously consider a netbook as their main non-powerful PC. Effectively what the Macbook Air wanted to be, but was too expensive to accomplish.

This is driven not only by the cost, hardware and OS capabilities of the netbook, but also because the volume of services/apps that are cloud-based are reaching the tipping point of being the de-facto version of the app to use. I am increasingly using cloud-based storage, applications, and services to manage my digital life, and I’m guessing many others are too. If this is the case, the need for hard-core hardware on a laptop is less necessary than before (unless you are a gamer, then forget netbooks altogether). Thus, a cheap and portable window to the internet is really all you will need when ‘roaming’.

And for those times when you don’t have an application installed on your netbook or have the ability to run an application, web-based virtual PCs, such as Nivio ( and Ghost ( will solve the problem for you.

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