InfoWorld is running a piece today called “The Shape of the Coming Netbook Revolution.” It takes a look a the current state of the netbook, as well as some future developments that could shake things up, like the introduction of ARM CPU-based, low power mini-laptops that offer many of the same features as today’s netbooks, but which can’t run Windows. In the future, netbooks could be cheaper, have better battery life, and look more like accessories for users that already have full sized laptops. At least that’s the theory that a number of groups are banking on. That includes ARM, wireless carriers (that are starting to bundle 3G service with netbooks), and hardware makers who are tired of the low profit margins on netbooks.
In other words, the future of netbooks could be as secondary devices, rather than laptop replacements. And they may not run Windows, or even full versions of Linux, but rather simplified operating systems with user interfaces that more closely resemble cellphone UIs than computer interfaces.
But there’s a problem with this thinking: Those devices have existed for over a decade. And they never took off the way netbooks did. Little handheld computers running Windows CE and Psion’s EPOC software existed in the late 1990s. And they were popular with enthusiasts. But they didn’t gain the widespread acceptance netbooks have. There are probably a few reasons for this. First, they were expensive, with prices often running as high as $1000 for a device with limited features. And in the 1990s, wireless internet access wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is today, so it didn’t make much sense to use these little computing devices to go online.
But I think one of the biggest problems with those early devices is that they weren’t capable of running Windows. Look, I love Linux and open source software. One of the reasons I purchased an Asus Eee PC 701 in November, 2007 (the day they became available in the US, in fact), was because it was a portable computer that came with Linux pre-installed, which meant I knew I wouldn’t have to futz with any unsupported drivers to get things working. At the time, you couldn’t even find a netbook that came with Windows pre-installed.
But a funny thing happened. After a few days I found myself wondering if I could install Windows XP on my Eee PC. And I wasn’t alone. To this day, some of the most popular articles I’ve written have dealt with installing Windows XP on Linux netbooks without using a CD-ROM drive.
In other words, I just don’t see a future where people flock to buy netbooks because they’re less capable machines than the mini-laptops available today. Yes, there are a few features I don’t ever expect to see from netbooks running Windows XP, Vista, or 7, like true “instant on” or “always connected” internet access. But I think people expect those features from cellphones, not from computers. I think a large part of the reason that netbooks have taken off over the last two years is because they are full computers. Sure, they’re smaller and lighter than most computers. And they tend to cost less and get better battery life. They might not be as fast as some PCs, or have advanced features like optical disc drives or discrete graphics processors. But almost any application that runs on a machine with a 15.6 inch screen and a Core 2 Duo processor can also run on a mini-laptop with a 10.2 inch screen and an Intel Atom N270 CPU.
I think ARM-based netbooks running Linux, Google Android, and other operating systems will certainly play a role in the future. But I don’t see them revolutionizing the netbook space. I think the cat has been let out of the bag. And as much as PC makers will try to convince customers that netbooks are less capable than full sized computers and that they should really be picked up as a second or third device instead of as a laptop replacement, I think consumer demand for mini-notebooks that offer “good enough” performance will continue to spur growth in the x86 netbook space.
So what role do you see ARM-based netbooks taking? Will they flop altogether? Will they show up in cheap mini-laptops offered by cellphone companies? Or will they lead to the worldwide acceptance of Linux as a viable desktop operating system?