There are two major trends in the netbook space today. On the one hand, PC makers are putting out ultraportable laptops with bigger screens and keyboards and faster processors. We’re talking 11 and 12 inch models with Intel CULV or AMD NEO chips. These machines might not strictly fit last year’s definition of a netbook. But PC makers are taking some of the features we’ve come to expect of netbooks (light weight, long battery life, and moderate performance) and thrown them into affordable machines that cost more than a typical 10 inch netbook, but less than any 3 pound laptop you would have found 2 years ago.
So on that front, I see the lines between netbooks and small notebooks beginning to blur. And that makes sense, because really, netbooks are just small notebooks. They tend to lack optical disc drives, have slow processors, and low price tags. But they’re still notebooks.
The other trend is the blurring of the lines between netbooks and smartphones. Leading this charge are companies developing mini-laptops based on ARM processors from companies like Qualcomm and Freescale. These processors are similar to the ones found in smartphones like the iPhone. They run slower than most netbook and notebook CPUs, but the latest ARM chips are capable of handling HD video playback and some other high performance tasks. They also have features like integrated support for WiFi, always-connected 3G connections, and GPS.
The problem with these ARM-based machines, which Qualcomm likes to call “smartbooks,” is that they don’t run Windows. Instead, they’ll likely ship with various Linux options, Google Android, or Windows CE. And while companies are working hard on custom Linux distributions to make smartbooks as easy to use as a cellphone, they’re not cellphones. Like netbooks, they’re little computers.
Now, if we lived in a world where it was impossible to surf the web, check your email, or update Twitter from your cellphone, I could see smartbooks taking off big time. Telephone companies can sell these cheap little laptops for around $199 and charge customers $40 to $60 a month for high speed wireless internet access. The problem is that you can do those things on your cellphone, and that $40 to $60 a month will likely be on top of the money you’re already paying for a voice and/or data plan on your cellphone. And that makes Smartbooks far more expensive in the long run than a typical laptop or netbook.
John Morris at ZDNet agrees. He’s written a rather thoughtful piece on five big issues with ARM and Android netbooks. In addition to the price issue, he’s concerned about performance, the look and feel of the operating system, storage capacity, and hardware and software compatibility. I think that last one is a biggie. Because when you hand people a cellphone they don’t expect it to run Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, or other Windows applications. When you hand them a Linux based device that looks just like a small laptop and tell them “OpenOffice.org is just as good,” some people will be happy with that. Others, not so much.
On the other hand, I’m a bit of a luddite when it comes to 3G data plans. I live in a major metropolitan area and I don’t have much trouble finding coffee shops and libraries with free WiFi access. So when I’m working away from the office, I rarely need a 3G modem, and don’t see any reason to pay $40 to $60 a month for one. I don’t even have a data plan on my cellphone. But I realize that not everyone feels the way I do. Some people want or need the ability to check their email from a bus or train, or when they’re walking down the street. And as hard as cellphone makers and software companies try to make that a pleasant experience on cellphones with 2 or 3 inch screens, nothing beats a laptop with a full QWERTY keyboard and 1024 x 600 pixel or higher resolution display for surfing the web. So maybe smartbooks really are the future… not necessarily of netbooks, but of smartphones?
What do you think? Would you be willing to carry around two devices? A cellphone and a smartbook? Would you rather have a smartphone and a netbook? Or how about netbook that folds up to fit in your pocket, and maybe doubles as a smartphone to boot?