Qualcomm Snapdragon netbook prototype

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?

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22 replies on “The netbook revolution isn’t coming, it’s already here”

  1. I’m considering buying a netbook. I’m a technophobe, and I don’t really give a stuff about the specs as long as the basics work. The attractions of these machines boils down to two points: long battery life and portability. For ten years I have owned those strange beasts called laptops, and have always found they are so delicate, heavy and expensive that I do not dare to travel with them. They are in fact non-portables–just smaller desktops. The netbook can be stuffed into a rucksack and if it gets nicked, it’s a just few hundred bucks. That buys my vote.

  2. The problem I could see looming here is that people have already rejected 7″ laptops: the keyboard size of them, the small amount of disk space, and, to some extent, the Linux OSes (some more than others) as well.

    By now, wouldn’t it seem to the mainstream that they would be going backwards, not forwards, with these? People have had a chance with this form factor before and complained a lot.

    There’s going to have to be some really compelling marketing for these to catch on, I think. For every claim of battery life and instant-on (and price), there’s going to be some doofus saying, “But my iPhone does that too and it has more space, so your product is worthless.”

    I don’t know. There are a lot of holes in the makeup of the ARM books still, and I’m not sure if they can manage to hold up in the market, enthusiast support aside.

  3. Older arguments against Linux are outdated now, and have been for at least a year or so. A full Linux distribution will run beautifully on a netbook … even cutting-edge KDE4 with all its power and whiz-bang is no problem at all.

    A full Linux distribution comes pre-loaded with a full gamut of desktop applications. Everything you could possibly want to do on a netbook can be done on a Linux netbook. No additional software is normally needed. Even if one has a very unusual application in mind and the default installation doesn’t cover it, a full distribution such as Ubuntu or Kubuntu will offer an additional 25,000+ official packages online, and even further there are 56,000+ packages contributed by community users on Launchpad. All available at zero cost.

    If one actually possessed a netbook with a full, recent, community-supported Linux distribution pre-installed on it, why on earth would one ruin it by installing XP so that one can run Notepad, Calc, Wordpad and Paint? Or then have the dubious priveledge of spending more than twice the original cost of the netbook to go out and purchase a set of Windows applications which would begin to appraoch the level of functionality that one originally had installed?

    Installing XP over a functional Linux installation makes no sense at all. One would have to be a loon.

    The other way around … installing a full working Linux distribution over the next-to-useless (after first installation, without additional purchases) XP Home … now that makes some sense.

  4. Hell yes dirt cheap laptops will make a huge impact, especially once they hit the $100-150 list price point or even below that. Especially the convertible tablet sort like those shown above. Why? Because they replace a large number of dedicated units in that price range. They can run as IP TVs, solid state DVD players, web browsers, GPS mappers and e-books, at near disposable prices.
    If I could get a ARM based 7″ or 8″ unit that basically functioned as a big version of my Nokia n810 I’d be in love.
    This Friday i got a 7″ rechargeable digital picture frame for $50, which plays MP3s, any video format I can throw at it, displays JPEGs, and even serves as an ebook. If the next version upped the resolution to 800×480 and fixed a few bugs it would fly off the shelves.

  5. It depends on whether ARM-based netbooks are done right or done wrong. Done wrong would mean offering a crippled or dumbed-down system at a rock-bottom price — which I fear is the approach that phone makers might naturally go for. Done right would mean offering a full-featured netbook with a bit lower cost and much better battery life than “Wintel” netbooks.

    Keep in mind that a “full-featured netbook” doesn’t have to be anywhere near as powerful as many notebooks sold today. My Dell Mini-9 has considerably more RAM and processing power, plus a higher-resolution display, than my primary desktop computer had 10 years ago. Yet, the kinds of things I do with my computer haven’t changed that much in 10 years. Moore’s Law has outraced the computing habits of a great many people.

    There should be no doubt that Linux-based systems are capable of matching Windows in usefulness and user-friendliness. Windows (any version) just isn’t that brilliant, it’s not some wonder OS. What’s changed is that the resource requirements to simply run Windows have increased an awful lot in the last 10 years, whereas Linux remains relatively lean. In the netbook space we’re seeing a platform where that actually matters, and ARM is likely to further underscore the difference.


    I hate when so called experts pipe-up about what netbooks are and are not. I hate it because it is invariably clap-trap based on a lack of understanding about people & computers. If someone talks about something that sells well as if it sells badly, then you might as well toss a pie in there face because they are not an expert they are what is referred to as a clown.

    You want to know what they inescapable trends for netbooks are
    – Bigger screen and easier input interface: Sure it needs to be cheap and easy to carry, but the point is not ‘how small’. Only idiots think ‘How small can I make input and output?’ Innovators and winners think, ‘How BIG can I make this and yet make it easy to carry?’ If I pulled something the size of a match book out of my pocket and it unfolded to be an 18” screen and a full keyboard that is still portable…that is still a netbook even if it breaks all the rules we currently know or think we know. Big as possible while also being small and light as possible…fold, roll, bend or twist to make the happen but a netbooks is cheap, functional mobility. (Why is that not a notebook? The easy answer notebooks became desktop replacements five years ago they eschewed mobility for desktop trappings. Notebook became less mobile and since nature abhores a vacuum netbooks were inevitable.)

    – The more powerful processing machines will always win! Netbooks are a price, size, power consumption, and processing power compromise. But again it not about ‘how shitty will be accept’ it is about how do we make this devices extremely powerful, extremely cheap, extremely small, and extreme energy efficient too. But you know who will win? They winner will be the device that provides four ‘extremely’ elements at once. The fools who say, ‘Look it cheap and small, but it does jack-shit’ will lose. The trend is more capable, not less.

    – The relative worthy of something is always against the imposition of carrying it. The avoirdupois pound was invented by London merchants in 1303. They didn’t arrive at that weight or that amount by accident. Sure it has to do with the how much gold was worth and the price of tea in china, but it has a lot to do with what people are willing to carry as a measure of pure weight. If you make a big & cheap netbook yet bring the weight down to 1 lb your on the right track for selling it. The pound is a wonderful time tested idea, if you follow ideas that are centuries if not millennia old you are very smart

    Big screen/big keyboard, powerful enough to do standard computing functions, light enough to carry around…THAT IS WHERE THE NETBOOK IS GOING. Anyone…anyone… who says different is a crackpot.

  7. In the long ago AM radio in the home was cutting edge stuff. Once we got past crystal sets radios became big things that sat on the floor. Pieces of furniture. People could only afford one radio so it sat in the living room and was the center of attention. As family listening tastes evolved radios moved into every room of the house. This came about because of the the “All American 5” a little 5 tube superhet radio that was small, cheap reliable & did most of the things that big furniture like thing in the living room did. Netbooks are today’s “All American 5”. taking over from the big desktop, now everyone gets their own. Cheap(er), small ,reliable one in almost every room.

  8. I think the early devices like the PSION and early WinCE devices didn’t take off for a number of reasons you named a few already. In the case of Windows CE, it was also poor interface design, besides being expensive at the time.
    Aside from all that, one important reason I believe it didn’t take off was the fact that the Internet was not as ubiquitous as it is now. A lot of the appeal (hence the name; netbook) is of course the ability to communicate and contribute content (blogs, twitter, etc…) from anywhere, without have to break your back carrying around regular laptops. Its the coalescence of infrastructure, engaging web content and appropriate devices that is causing this netbook revolution.
    In my opinion the device does not have to run Windows, but because its the OS that everyone knows AND since XP the OS has achieved a level of maturity, stability and “plug & play” ease of use, supporting most PC hardware out there, that its become so popular. Linux in contrast (perhaps unfortunately) isn’t quite there yet in terms of almost ubiquitous hardware support. Ubuntu is coming close though with 9.04 but I still find myself having to jump through hoops to get stuff to work… and then when it finally works… a kernel update comes in and breaks stuff… very tiring… So yes its no wonder that people hark back to Windows.
    Whomever gets this right (‘it just works’) and at the lowest cost will win. Maybe it will be Android on ARM, who knows, I think they stand a good chance.

    1. Hardware support is less important then software support these days.

      With windows, people could bring their existing collection of software (legally or whatever) on tho these little machines.

      I wonder how many bloggers i have seen complain that they could not run their favorite blogging tool on linux (funny enough, it seems to be a tool made for windows live, but seems to just as often be used on wordpress these days).

      Often enough, windows itself is immaterial, it just happens to be the framework that most people have over time built up their online life.

      for those of us that live online, with gmail, google reader and whatever services that works flawlessly in any browser, we could probably jump shop at the drop of a hat. But for most, there is a whole lot of software collected that enhance their ability to use the net. And a lot of it runs only on a win32 compatible environment…

  9. Honestly, this reminds me a LOT of the pre-iPod MP3 player “revolution” in the late 90’s. Flash players were all the rage because they were small, light, and shock-proof. But they only held a handful songs on 32 or 64 megs of memory. Hard drive based players existed, but they weren’t much smaller or lighter than CD players, and they weren’t shock-proof. They had a place, but no one thought they had a huge future. Flash was the future, and that was TRUE, but a decade away.

    Then, Apple came out with the iPod, and everything changed. The iPod was smaller and lighter than most hard drive based MP3 players, and it had a “coolness” factor that nothing else did. It was also limited in its feature set and incredibly “closed” in its accessories and content purchase options. And it is, without contest, the most popular MP3 player on the planet.

    And they did it again with the smartphone. Technically, the iPhone had nothing in particular over existing smartphones and PDA’s. In fact, it had some significant drawbacks, such as no physical keyboard or document editing capabilities. Yet somehow, Apple has dominated that space once again. Clearly, standard logic does not apply!

    I still have a theory that Apple will revolutionize this space in a way that no one is expecting, and it will be an ARM-based device that doesn’t run a desktop OS. Not YET anyway. Not until desktop processors can compete in battery life. I’m waiting impatiently to see what happens here. [=^)

    1. The ipod coolness factor didnt really explode until itunes was ported to windows.

      But at that point the mediaphiles thats in the biz, and the biz happens to run on apple products, thanks to them being just as, if not more, inertia prone as any other biz, had chatted the product into the high heavens.

      As for the size, that came from it being the first to make use of a new size drive, 1.8″, vs the 2.5″ that most inherited from laptops.

      The thing about apple is that it has its legacy tied up with layout, images and media in general. You could not walk into a newspaper photo department without running into a apple machine at one point…

      1. While you’re correct, Apple has moved far beyond its legacy of layout, images, and media in general. Between the iPod and the iPhone, they absolutely dominate the hand-held portable electronics market. This is why I think their vision for a competitor to netbooks is so interesting.

        Apple doesn’t often go after a certain market segment unless they think they can own it. They had an utter flop on their hands with the MacBook Air, in my personal opinion. My Asus Eee PC 1000HE trumps it in almost every possible way.

        There is no way I would call what they’re planning a netbook, as it will be too small and too expensive, but I do have increasing confidence that some kind of overgrown iPod Touch will exist one day soon!

  10. We will see next month, when all the ARMbooks come out 🙂 It might be a beggining of an era 🙂 Hope much more user oriented one since the very start.

  11. After resisting the temptation for over a year, I finally took the plunge last month and picked up an Acer Aspire One (A110). Note to UK readers – currently £135 in PC World. And that’s new, not refurb.

    On the whole I’ve been happy with it. The fan sounds as if it’s grinding into the heatsink sometimes (apparently a common issue with the model – I’m going to see if I can take a craft knife to the bottom of the blades next weekend) and the spacebar on the keyboard suffers from bounce (suddenly I’m typing double spaces everywhere), but on the whole I’m a happy bunny.

    Anyway, getting off topic. Like a lot of enthusiast’s netbooks, my originally-Linux-powered Aspire One now runs Windows XP (and very well I might add) in addition to Linux (Ubuntu, not the distro it came with). Why? I bought my netbook as a laptop, not a mobile web browser. If I could afford a mid-range laptop as well, I’d happily use the product as the manufacturer intended. But the fact of the matter is that I can’t, so I must make the most out of what I can get. My choice of operating system comes down to software availability. Being my primary “laptop”, there are a lot of applications I’d like to run (yes, games too) on the device that I am unable to under Linux. The ability to play Flash-based videos was also a factor when making my decision – the performance of Adobe’s Flash plugin for Windows is vastly superior to the Linux version.

    I am intrigued by the ARM-powered devices due to enter the market later this year. With the rise in prices and increasingly laptop-like features, netbooks seem to have forgotten what they’re supposed to be. I’d like to see a return to the core netbook values – portability, convenience and low cost – and I hope that these ARM netbooks will do just that. A $100 device with a web browser and useful productivity software would definitely get my attention. At least it would make a nice change from yet another $500 mini laptop.

    1. That flash video performance is easy to explain.

      Flash can make use of the a 3D chip to accelerate itself, but on linux, doing so will interfere with compiz or similar. And one also needs working 3D drivers…

      1. I accidentally clicked that I liked this, so I thought I’d get that out of the way.

        I don’t see how a 3D chip has anything to do with video performance. Usually that has more to do with 2D acceleration. I’m sure that Adobe makes full use of DirectX to accelerate video performance and why it’s so much faster under Windows. Consider that even on Mac OS X, Flash is sluggish, so it’s not a GNU/Linux issue. GNU/Linux does have SDL, but it’s not a requirement for the OS and I’m not sure if Adobe even accesses that for Flash. As it is, Adobe has only one developer working on the GNU/Linux port of Flash, so that in and of itself should tell you where the fault lies.

        For the record, I have run Compiz on my other laptop running Ubuntu, and I barely noticed much of a slowdown with Compiz on than when it was off while playing 3D games like OpenArena or Urban Terror, and that was with the Intel X3100 graphics. I imagine that the slowdown is negligible with a more powerful card, regardless of whether it’s the Xorg driver or the proprietary nVIDIA/ATI driver.

  12. Well, I agree that, for now, most people who buy netbooks as second computers will prefer to have Windows installed. But for the hundreds of millions of people around the world who will be using a netbook as their first own computer — from consumers in China and India to elementary school students in the U.S. — it won’t matter much if it’s running Windows or Linux. They, or the people who computers for them, will be concerned with price-performance match-up, rather than having Windows. And if the use of ARM processors can allow users to do most of what they can do with current netbooks, accept by using Linux instead of Windows, at 2/3 the cost, 2/3 the weight, and twice the battery life for the same screen and keyboard size, then why not go for the Linux model?

  13. Nowadays and will be more clear in the future there is no need to use Windows for the majority part of the netbook users. In my case I don’t buy a computer if there is Windows inside, becouse I want to have a garantee that gnu/linux run, becouse I don’t use Windows since 2002.
    I’m an IT man, but even my mothers (seventy years old) use gnu/linux, on a Pentium III with Mandrake 9.0. Many of my relatives use gnu/linux becouse I don’t use Windows and they do everything.
    There are boys of 10 years old tha install alone Ubuntu, so I think in the near future the processor architecure will win fi the are useful really not only becouse they run Windows.

    1. >There are boys of 10 years old
      Yeah, there are. And they often spell as bad as you do. And they use that cool shiny Ubuntu because it has all those useless bells and whistles.

      1. Did you think that maybe English is not the first language of the original poster? Take that into consideration before you critique someone’s grammar. I personally think the original poster did a great job conveying what he believed.

        I run Ubuntu Netbook Remix on my Eee PC 901 and it serves me wonderfully. The only time I find myself using the terminal is when I’m SSHing to my GNU/Linux server at home. Other than that, it’s practically unnecessary. No, I don’t use Compiz because it has no use for me in this machine, so I don’t have any useless bells and whistles. Everything just works for me so that I can get my work done. While the included Xandros was OK for a regular user IMO, I found it to be a bit constricting for a power user like me. However, I don’t think it’s subpar when put up against Windows on a netbook, especially considering what comes out of the box.

        The naysayers keep spewing out the same misinformation about GNU/Linux on netbooks. Unfortunately, as it’s been said before, the manufacturers are pretty much to blame for the distribution choices they made (as well as certain tactics that we all know and I won’t bring up once again). If Windows works for you on your netbook, great, but don’t discount those of us that actually see the value of GNU/Linux on these little machines. The fact that I don’t have to pay for an unused Microsoft Windows license in the purchase of a netbook is enough to keep me as a customer.

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