Small form-factor laptops have popped up from nearly nowhere. Some people call the netbook the wave of the future. Others dismiss them as toys. Which is it?
It seems like almost overnight a new crop of mini-laptops has appeared on the scene. Manufacturers have always tried to figure out ways to make laptops lighter, smaller, faster, and with longer battery life, but there always seemed to be a downward limit in the size of the machines.
For the longest time, the limiting factor that kept laptops from shrinking was the basic elements of the machine. System boards could only be so small. You had to include a hard drive, which was at least 2.5" in size. There was the seemingly mandatory and endless set of serial, parallel, USB, and other ports, which would clutter the periphery of the unit. Plus you had the PCMCIA standard, which meant that add-on cards were at least the size of a credit card. Battery technology required large, hefty batteries. And finally there was the usability factor of the laptop's keyboard.
All these things conspired together to keep laptops from getting much smaller than an 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper. Beyond that size, the units seemed to collapse into only semi-useful PDAs or devices that were limited to running an OS like Windows CE. One of the most successful sub-notebooks was the IBM ThinkPad 701c, but it didn't survive very long in the marketplace.
Now, it seems like just about every major manufacturer of laptops has its own sub-notebook, only now they're referred to with the buzzwords of ultra-mobile PC or netbook.
What's in a name?
We've had several netbooks here at TechRepublic that we've been using for testing. The first one we got was an Asus Eee PC. Although blogger Vincent Danen liked it, TechRepublic editor Mark Kaelin was less than impressed. He found the limitations with its version of Linux most annoying along with screen resolution and keyboard feel. I think he got the most pleasure out of cracking the Eee open rather than anything else.
After that, we got a 2GoPC Classmate. It was rather limiting as well. The screen resolution was particularly odd, and I never got used to the keyboard. I let my eleven-year-old daughter play with it for a while, and she wasn't sold on it either.
Mark has a Dell Inspiron 9 on his desk right now. We're also probably going to get an Acer Aspire One. On top of all that, TechRepublic's sister site, News.com, has a Lenovo IdeaPad S10 that they seem to like so far.
All the models seem to share the same limitations. Compared to standard notebooks, the screens are squashed and the keyboards are too small. (Although News.com likes the Lenovo keyboard so far.) Because they run the slower Atom processors, the machines aren't nearly strong enough to run Vista, but they seem to run Linux and Windows XP tolerably. With Intel's new dual-core Atom processor, the performance problem may disappear. For now, however, the inability to run Vista hasn't been a problem and seems to say more about Vista than the netbooks.
Growing trend or passing fad?
The question at hand, however, is whether these devices are the wave of the future or a passing fad? ABI Research claims that by 2013, the size of the ultra-mobile market will be the same size as the notebook market — about 200 million units per year. This market will be led by the netbooks and things called Mobile Internet Devices. MIDs are devices stuck somewhere between a netbook and a cell phone but currently make up only a very tiny part of the ultra-mobile market.
That would lead one to think that ultramobiles are indeed the wave of the future. Of course, at one time research firms like Gartner assumed that OS/2 would wind up with as much as 21% of the market or more.
On the flip side are those like ZDNet's Larry Dignan who imply, or flat out state, that netbooks are little more than toys. Although some are clearly targeted at students, I'm sure that most manufacturers are aiming a little higher up the market than that.
I'm somewhere in between. So far, most of the devices I've seen that we have here just haven't fully gotten it right yet. They're getting closer, but so far don't seem like machines that are ready to take over for a laptop yet. They do have potential, and I'm sure if you went back fifteen years, nobody would be talking about laptops ever fully being able to challenge desktop machines for dominance either.
The bottom line for IT leaders
Right now, netbooks aren't a viable replacement for most notebook users. They're niche machines that are really only useful for those with specific needs and who aren't aware or bothered by the mini-machine's limitations. Eventually they may become ready for business use, but unless you have an executive who travels a lot or someone who always has to have the neatest new gadget, you may be better served to wait.