This week is IDF, and one of the platforms Intel is highlighting is called netbooks, based on its Atom processor. I struggle with this concept because a netbook feels and looks like a small notebook and the initial offerings act like notebook computers. The old saying goes if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, chances are it is a duck.
But netbooks promise a different experience, and I'm convinced we haven't yet seen the second shoe drop.
Let's talk about that second shoe today.
The Netbook's Strength and Weakness
Let's start with weakness first. These products are not high-performing, if you measure performance by graphics and processor speed. You won't be doing photo editing, gaming or any truly processor- or graphics-intensive work on them. Multi-tasking won't be their greatest strength, either. Some are too small, in terms of screen and keyboard size, for many users.
Where they match notebooks is in connectivity and compatibility. Netbooks generally have the same wired and wireless capabilities as regular notebooks, and they will run a full OS (typically Linux or Windows XP, with some capable of running Vista).
The products' strengths are battery life, size and price, making the product potentially more appealing to the most mobile of notebook users.
To net this out, this product is vastly enhanced by connected solutions, but at a disadvantage against a laptop as a traditional desktop replacement.
Enter the Cloud
Much like Apple did with iTunes and the iPod, the real opportunity for a netbook lies not in the hardware or the applications that run directly on it, but in the services to which the device connects. This may be the ideal platform for a blended mobile thin client offering, where the device is mostly connected via WAN, Wi-Fi or Wimax but has the capability to be used on a plane or otherwise disconnected in a pinch.
It still has enough power and battery life to play music or watch videos, and it can even play remote or local Flash-based casual games, making it acceptable to a wide audience of users who also like its aggressive price, small size and relatively good battery life.
Given the security advantages of cloud-based applications (the data generally remains with the more secure remote location) and the increasing popularity of applications like Salesforce.com, Google Docs, Jooce, Evernote, TwitterFone, Blist and G.ho.st, this seems like the right product (if bundled properly) at the right time.
Refining the Offering
I've been using a couple of these for a little bit now, and I'm convinced that the current operating system choices aren't showcasing this product well enough. You get Ubuntu Linux, XP and occasionally Vista Basic. In other words, you get your choice of an incompatible OS (that looks old), a compatible OS that is old, or a crippled version of a new OS. What I think this class of product needs is an OS that is specifically designed for it, much like what Apple did for the iPhone.
Other users think that the gOS Ubuntu variant is likely better than the slightly modified version I've seen so far, and WindowBlinds makes a big difference in terms of making the user interface (XP or Vista Basic) seem more advanced.
I also think services like SugarSync and Live Mesh, which better mirror what is on a full-sized laptop or desktop system, go a long way to making this generation of product vastly more useful. I've always thought the missed opportunity with a small laptop like this is that it could be used in conjunction with a desktop computer, rather than instead of it.
In the end, though, I think this is the birth of something interesting, and eventually those that are currently doing thin clients and blade PCs will likely come around to the idea that these may be an excellent solution to temporarily bridge the gap between the wired clients they use and the mobile clients we want at an affordable price.
Whatever the result, there is clearly a change in the wind.