One of the things that makes tiny laptops like the Asus Eee PC exciting is that they are actually full-fledged computers, not just glorified cellphones, PDAs, eBook readers, or other dedicated devices. Intel and others like to call these computers “netbooks,” because they make it easy to connect to the internet but don’t provide a ton of processing power to perform other tasks. But if you want to watch movies, play games, or do some photo and video editing on an Eee PC, nobody’s going to stop you.
That’s why I have mixed feelings about a project Techcrunch founder Mike Arrington is starting. The idea is to develop a $200 tablet PC that’s designed to run one, maybe two programs.
Basically, the tablet would use open source software and hardware, and would run Firefox. You wouldn’t really see the operating system at all. You’d hit the power button, and up would pop Firefox, which would allow you to access web pages and web applications. Need a word processor? Try Google Docs or Zoho. Want to chat with your friends on AOL, MSN, or Yahoo! Instant messengers? There’s always Meebo. Arrington suggests that it might be worth running Skype on the tablet as well, but there are web-based chat, VoIP, and video services, like Tokbox, as well.
In other words, you could certainly make a case that the only computer program you need today is a good web browser. That’s pretty much what Steve Jobs suggested when he first announce the iPhone. The plan was to ship a device with a few preloaded applications and a web browser. If you wanted to write an application that would work with the iPhone, you would write it to work with the Safari web browser and then stick it on the web. But you know what? It didn’t take long for people to start hacking the iPhone and writing native applications. Eventually Apple gave in and began offering an SDK for developers to write applications that would work on the iPhone. Because some things just don’t work as well on the web.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m completely supportive of Arrington’s idea. If he can pull it off (with the help of a small army of volunteers), it would be amazing. But as attractive as a portable, affordable internet tablet would be, I don’t see it taking any market share away from laptops anytime soon. It won’t run some of the applications you’re most familiar with, and more importantly, it will turn into a paperweight if you happen to step away from a WiFi hotspot.
What do you think? Is the world ready for an internet-only tablet device? Would it replace a laptop for you, at least in some circumstances?