Netbooks Continue to Buck the Negative Trends


Two weeks ago, I posted on the confusing and very promising world-or worlds-of mobile Internet devices (MIDs), netbooks, small laptops and smartphones. All of these devices are evolving rapidly and jockeying for position. Netbooks and smartphones seem to be the leaders, with small laptops holding their own and MIDs having a bit of difficulty finding a niche.


It seems that netbooks, already hot, may benefit from improved functionality. It is unclear if the gradual improvements represent a new generation or simply incremental improvements as the technology evolves. Regardless, the introduction to this InformationWeek looking at hot netbooks says that the category is addressing some of the shortcomings of the past, such as "cramped" keyboards, small screens, slow processors, short battery life and too little memory. The story offers capsules of some of the most popular and promising netbooks, including the Asus eee 1000HE, the Acer Aspire One, the Dell Mini 9 Inspiron, the MSI Wind U120 and the Sony Vaio P. The long piece concludes with a look at advances in keyboards, drives, power and extras.


The march of devices from consumers to businesses is occurring in the netbook sector. This Computerworld piece starts with a vignette about ADNH Compass, a 17,000-employee caterer in the Middle East. The company decided to give workers Aspire One netbooks instead of full-size laptops. Perhaps the most interesting tidbit is that the company's ERP software manager is in the process of enabling the devices to access SAP applications via 3G wireless. This clearly shows that the netbooks aren't out of their league and are robust enough to support the heavier workloads demanded in business environments. The tone of the piece is that IT managers who formerly scoffed at the idea of replacing laptops with netbooks are taking the concept far more seriously.


ZDNet's Dana Blankenhorn notes the "rush" toward netbooks that IDC reports in its fourth quarter microprocessor numbers and points out that total was down 20 percent if Intel's netbook-aimed Atom processor is subtracted from the whole. Clearly, the form factor, which has no moving parts, is the hot product in a struggling economy. Blankenhorn takes it a bit further with ideas for the next generation of netbooks. His ideas include solar power, DVD drives, ruggedization, game slots and phone chargers.


The competition doesn't just cover the finished products. With that much promise, and with the slump that has hit the rest of the laptop industry, it is a no-brainer for microprocessor vendors to get into the action. One company is doing so this week: ARM is using the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona to announce that it is aiming a low-cost processor at the sector. The Sparrow, this PC Magazine story says, uses the same instruction set as the Cortex A8-the processor used in the Palm Pre -- which is ARM's top of the line. Sparrow will be available in 2011.Linux Devices adds that Xandros, which is used in the Asus EEE, is porting its desktop Linux distro to two ARM-based platforms. The story says that the move is part of a broader ARM plan to support more portable devices, including smartphones and MIDs.


The netbook/MID/smartphone/laptop sector is perhaps the most interesting and fun to watch. For one thing, the sour economy means that nothing good is happening in many other sectors. Even beyond comparisons with other sectors, the combination of a hot market and form factors that still are relatively fluid makes this an exciting category to watch.