Netbooks

I’ve written about netbooks before, but a recent post from Jeff Atwood drove me absolutely crazy. Atwood is working to take Cringely’s place as the only consistently-wrong blog I subscribe to. First he quotes Dave Winer’s definition of a netbook:

  1. Small size.
  2. Low price.
  3. Battery life of 4+ hours. Battery can be replaced by user.
  4. Rugged.
  5. Built-in wifi, 3 USB ports, SD card reader.
  6. Runs my software.
  7. Runs any software I want; no platform vendor to decide what’s appropriate.
  8. Competition. Users have choice and can switch vendors at any time.

This is a bizarrely specific list—only two USB ports and it’s not a netbook? It’s also absurdly general: are “small” and “low price” just relative to laptops?

More importantly, what on earth does “any software I want” mean? Does that mean compiled code? Does it require an API for the same UI elements used by the system itself? How extensive, stable, and well-supported does that API have to be? Most importantly, how does that API interact with “competition”? What I’m getting at is that a device with a robust Javascript environment could well qualify better for points 6–8 than a linux device with a custom GUI.

But the craziest thing is that there’s a glaring omission from the list. Both Winer and Atwood seem to take it as a given that a netbook has a hardware keyboard and a PC-like screen. In fact, they both seem to take it as a given that a netbook has all the capabilities of a desktop computer. This is where I think their perspectives go off the rails, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Netbooks are no small thing for Atwood:

Netbooks are the endpoint of four decades of computing – the final, ubiquitous manifestation of “A PC on every desk and in every home”. But netbooks are more than just PCs. If the internet is the ultimate force of democratization in the world, then netbooks are the instrument by which that democracy will be achieved.

[…]

To dismiss netbooks as like laptops, but lamer is to completely miss the importance of this pivotal moment in computing – when pervasive internet and the mass production of inexpensive portable computers finally intersected. I’m talking about unlimited access to the complete sum of human knowledge, and free, unfettered communication with anyone on earth. For everyone.

Ignoring the inane overstatement, it’s clear that Atwood is conflating two very different things. He previously described a PC that met a set of eight criteria; now he’s just talking about ubiquitous web access. I agree that such access is a big deal, but there are lots of ways to achieve it without a netbook. There’s little question in my mind that when most people on earth have web access, they will usually be getting it from devices that are not PCs.

Atwood then focuses on yet another item that didn’t appear on his list of netbook traits: a lack of ongoing subscription costs or network charges:

It’s true that smartphones are slowly becoming little PCs, but they will never be free PCs. They will forever be locked behind an imposing series of gatekeepers and toll roads and walled gardens. Anyone with a $199 netbook and access to the internet can make free Skype videophone calls to anywhere on Earth, for as long as they want. Meanwhile, sending a single text message on a smartphone costs 4 times as much as transmitting data to the Hubble space telescope.

I don’t care how “smart” your smartphone is, it will never escape those corporate shackles. Smartphones are simply not free enough to deliver the type of democratic transformation that netbooks – mobile PCs cheap enough and fast enough and good enough for everyone to afford – absolutely will.

Rich techies live in a strange bubble where high-speed wifi is pervasive and free, but cellular service is spotty and expensive. Such a bubble usually extends to home and the office; if these were the only places where network connectivity mattered there wouldn’t be much call for mobile computing in the first place.

Atwood’s argument also ignores non-netbook devices with wifi, such as the iPod Touch.

Maybe those early [netbooks] were [cheap and crappy], but having purchased a new netbook for $439 shipped, it is difficult for me to imagine the average user ever paying more than $500 for a laptop.

Spoken like a man who does his “real” work on a desktop PC. Those who make their living entirely with a laptop will certainly be willing to pay for a high-quality machine.

But if we accept the premise that the “average user” already has a desktop PC, I’ll agree with Jeff that laptop sales among this market will drop. I just don’t think they’ll be replaced with PCs shoehorned into uncomfortable form factors; I think they’ll be replaced by “internet communicators” (as Steve Jobs calls them).

The average user wants a mobile device with web access. It’s incredibly myopic to interpret that desire as a need for a full-blown PC.