Friday, May 8, 2009

The rise of the Netbook

Making computers smaller was a goal from the very earliest incarnations of the technology. Down from the size of a room to the size of a few fridges. Down from that to a largish box that could sit on the top of a desk. Soon someone asked "How about one I can take with me?" Portable (in the sense that they COULD be moved, not necessarily EASY to move) computers themselves iterated through various forms. Of course someone said "What if it ran on batteries?" and computers became truly portable, freed from the tether of the electrical grid (or a generator). The same evolution has continued over the years with portables becoming smaller and more powerful with each cycle.

Until very recently these smaller and more powerful machines commanded premium prices. You could expect to pay much more than you'd pay for a desktop computer with similar power. The intent was that the portable computer should have the same power (or close to it) as a desktop. This meant all kinds of trade-offs had to be made and components had to be engineered to be even smaller. All this engineering did not come cheap and having a laptop computer was a badge of honor and the province of the technological (or just wealthy) elite.

Eventually a kind of tipping point was found, not unlike with cell phones. In the same way that the huge cell phones of the 1980's become smaller and smaller into the 1990's so that design decisions started to rotate around making the keys LARGE enough for human fingers to operate as the phones had become so small laptops started to change also. Two kinds of consumers were looking for portable machines, with two sets of criteria: as SMALL as possible (most often frequent travelers and/or gadget freaks) versus as POWERFUL as possible (the so called "desktop replacement" crowd). Each of these consumer types was provided with what they wanted, but in all cases you continued to pay dearly for the machines.

As time and Moore's Law marched on an intersection occurred. This was the intersection between relatively powerful laptops and the ubiquity of wireless internet. Again something that was once the province of the technical elite became very common, with wireless access available virtually anywhere for a very small fee, if at all. Instead of existing as an alternative to a desktop computer the laptop became basically a terminal to connect into the content of the internet. The need for the terminal hardware (i.e., the laptop) to be powerful was lessened. Beyond a certain amount of power was a waste. A simple machine could be used to read e-mail, surf the web, watch videos, etc. The hardware of a new type of laptop was ready. The other part necessary was the software.

Open source software, which languished for some years in obscurity from the public, leapt to the forefront of these new machines, dubbed "netbooks" as they are basically used to access networks and not much else. Rather than having to pay the "Microsoft tax" for every machine netbook manufacturers started to load open source operating systems like Linux onto their machines, erasing the extra payment. This dropped the price a little bit more, along with the smaller screen, small hard drive and lack of optical drive to produce a netbook for a few hundred dollars instead of almost a thousand dollars.

The effect on the market was slow to build but once it did it ran away, catching the large manufacturers unawares. Coinciding with some economic hard times netbooks flew off the shelves and accounted for most of the growth in the sales of portable computers. Now all the major manufacturers have their own netbooks out and Microsoft is scrambling to try and find a way to ensure that they are a presence in the market, albeit at a lower per unit cost as in the past.

For many people a netbook is all the computer that they need. They can use a web based provider of e-mail, store their pictures on a photo sharing site, use online applications for word processing and generally do what they need to do without very much regard to the computer that they do it on. If their inexpensive netbook bites the dust the only thing you might need to do is rediscover your bookmarks (although even those can be cached away by one of many online utilities).

There will always be a market for the more powerful and expensive laptops for people who need the power of local processing for tasks like video processing or engineering that burns up a lot of CPU cycles, in the same way that there will still be people who will spend thousands of dollars on desktop machines to do very specific tasks. In both cases, though, there are now inexpensive alternatives, often using open source software, that give people just what they need for a small amount of money.

Keeping in mind what you're trying to get done before you choose your technology is a techgnostic thing to do. Think it through the next time you advise somebody on what kind of computer to buy or examine your own needs the next time you put your money down.

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