Saturday, March 14, 2009

Netbooks evolving away from target market


I’ve been watching the evolution of netbook computers both as a journalist and as a consumer. I still haven’t seen the perfect netbook for me yet, but I’m hopeful.
Unfortunately the true promise of netbooks – low-cost, ultraportable notebook PCs – seems to be getting away from manufacturers as they continue to blur the lines with full-function notebook PCs.
Palm founder and handheld computing pioneer Jeff Hawkins had the right idea with the ill-fated Foleo. That product was canceled by struggling smart-phone maker Palm just as the company was set to go into production in September 2007.
(Read my interview with Hawkins published Aug. 8, 2008, in Investor’s Business Daily under the headline “In Netbook Category, Palm Founder Reboots.”)
Hawkins got a number of important things right with the Foleo. First, the small, lightweight (2.5 pounds), wireless-enabled notebook had a full-size keyboard and decent sized screen (10 inches). Early netbooks, like Asustek’s Eee PC featured cramped keyboards and tiny displays (7 inches), which made them almost toy-like.
The Foleo also turned on and off instantly, thanks to its use of flash memory and a version of the Linux operating system. Plus, the energy-efficient flash memory gave the Foleo good battery life (up to 5 hours).
The Foleo was the first notebook designed for speedy access to the Internet at wireless hot spots. You could flip it open at Starbucks and instantly write e-mails, browse the Web or craft a blog entry.
Techies knocked the first-generation product for not having a fast enough processor to run video well. They also couldn’t understand why someone would buy a netbook when they could get a full-function notebook PC for about the same price or a little more. (Foleo was expected to sell initially for $499.)
Bloggers and tech columnists who harshly criticized the Foleo and predicted its demise crowed when Palm caved. But they missed the point – the Foleo was never meant to be a replacement for a full-function notebook. Those same critics were blind-sided by the success of the Eee PC and other netbooks.
The technorati care about cutting-edge technology, while mainstream consumers want simple products that fill a need in their lives. The techies just didn’t get the netbook category.
What makes the netbook category attractive to consumers is the idea of an ultraportable notebook PC costing $300 to $500. Before netbooks, you’d have to pay more than $1,000 for a compact notebook from Sony or Fujitsu.
The netbook category has evolved rapidly in just over a year since Asus introduced the first one in late 2007. Traditional PC makers like Acer, Dell, HP and Lenovo have since jumped into the market, as have Intel and Microsoft.
(See my article, “Netbooks, Notebooks: Categories Merging,” from the March 2 issue of IBD.)
Early netbooks used the Linux operating system, but today most netbooks ship with Microsoft’s Windows XP. The hardware specs are moving upstream too. New netbooks are shipping with bigger screens (9 to 10 inches) and even features like webcams, touchscreens, TV tuners and GPS receivers. They’re also coming with 120 to 160 gigabyte hard disk drives rather than solid state memory.
The larger screen sizes and accompanying full-size keyboards are welcome. But adding traditional PC features will raise the price for netbooks, slow them down and eat into battery life.
Market research firms Gartner and IDC are calling netbooks “mini-notebooks” now because they are evolving to be low-end notebook PCs and not so much their own category any more.
What I want from a netbook is a “notebook lite.” I want something that’s lightweight and affordable and does a few things really well – Web browsing, e-mail and word processing. It should have the ability to at least read Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint slides and PDFs. It should use solid state memory, which is faster, more reliable and uses less power. It also needs a 10-inch or larger screen and have a full-size keyboard.
Oh, and it should cost less than $500.
Is that asking too much?

(Top photo: Acer’s Aspire One AOD150 netbooks, which debuted in February, have 10.1-inch screens and start at $350. Bottom photo: Palm’s Jeff Hawkins with the Foleo subnotebook at its May 2007 debut.)

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