Predictions for 2009: Netbook/Smartphone Battle for PC Future


One of the big battles already heating up is whether netbooks or smartphones take the place of PCs as the new client-side interface to the Web. Much like in the '80s when terminals gave way to PCs, 2009 will be the year that PCs are displaced by devices that, well, remind me a lot of terminals in terms of their reliance on a remote platform. But these products are more of a blend of desktop and remote capabilities, with smartphones being more portable but also more limited, and netbooks being much more similar to the PCs they replace (in fact, they are PCs that are in the process of being optimized for the Web).


Emergence of Corporate Netbooks


Initially, products that have hit the market, like the impressive and brand-new HP Mini 1000, were mostly targeted at consumers, but companies have already begun to request them. Versions that have Trusted Platform Modules (TPMs) and higher levels of security, like biometric fingerprint readers, are due in 2009.


Even IBM is starting to rave about these things as it brings its own desktop hosted solutions to market. The underlying concept of making use of the vastly more reliable wireless network to put much of the desktop complexity into the cloud is a good one and, in a cash-strapped market, it is already resonating.


Granted, it likely will be awhile before the full impact of this platform is understood, particularly the back end, but it promises many of the benefits of thin-client computing with fewer tradeoffs and risks.




Much of the same eco-system could be applied to smartphones and they have been growing in the enterprise for some time. The problem with smartphones is that there are too many platforms at the moment. And there are more entering early in 2009, as the Palm Nova platform rolls to market with its own applications store.


This takes a relatively small number of applications developers and spreads them thinly among Apple, Google, and now Palm, with Microsoft coming in late 2009. Microsoft's late entry with Windows Mobile 7 helps the others but there are currently too many platforms, with Symbian and LiMo on the short list of those that may not make it into the next decade.


This proliferation of platforms, coupled with the comparatively high cost of smartphone services, when compared to regular cell phones, is likely the cause of the slowing growth for this class of product -- and it's likely to drive the underperforming platforms under during the next 24 months. Then we'll see the market begin to expand again and smartphones will more aggressively compete with netbooks.


The Other Shoe


However, we are still waiting for the other shoe to drop -- a set of truly visionary Web tools designed to work with both netbooks and smartphones. Google is the furthest along in this regard, but its Apps platform was largely disappointing, suggesting that the best is yet to come.


It is this back end that will make netbooks in particular the platform it can be and drive the next big replacement cycle for hardware on top of Windows 7. This doesn't mean that Linux and Apple won't be players, but neither platform has yet stepped up to the "embrace, extend and extinguish" strategy that worked so well with Microsoft. The desktop remains Microsoft's space to lose.


Another player to watch in this space is Phoenix Technology, which is slated to bring out in 2009 HyperSpace, initially announced in 2007. This product, based partially on a MacOS-like spin on Linux, promises to begin an interesting revolution and has the potential to put more Linux on the desktop than anything that has come before it.


Wrapping Up


Netbooks and smartphones, coupled with Web-based services and some interesting new platforms, will be moving against PCs in 2009. While it will take several years for this trend to fully emerge and displace traditional PCs, 2009 will represent the mainstream moves of the full platforms, including maturing Web-based properties and applications stores for both, that should drive some needed change into the personal computer segment. We'll find at the end of this fight that size has its advantages and most of us, particularly baby boomers, can't live on ultra small screens.


But we are setting up for a new class of converged product in a few short years as smartphones and netbooks probe for the natural middle ground between portability, price and functionality. It will be an interesting 24 months, at the end of which we will all be vastly more mobile.