Netbooks could change everything

When Intel introduced the Atom processor, which ushered in the netbook, they seemed very conflicted about it.  They wanted to sell some, but not at the expense of the mainstream Centrino business.  It turns out they had good reason for caution, because now everything could change.

Previously, any computer with less than a nine inch screen and not running a normal OS (Windows or Mac) was a tweener – too small to be a serviceable laptop, and too big to be a smart phone.  Netbooks, combined with a price/value focused market, open people’s eyes to the utility of a small computer that delivers decent Web functionality, very low price, great battery life, and not much else.

What could happen as a result…

Manufacturers have been testing the market for Linux netbooks, to save money on the OS.  But users are frustrated enough by computers they know how to use, so an unfamiliar interface has met resistance sufficient to keep Linux out of the tournament.  I think this will change, though.  Let’s look at a few trends and market enablers.

ARM processors enable smaller, cheaper, netbooks with better battery life.  But they don’t run Windows (yet).  So, to minimize cost, and make a thinner computer with longer battery life, PC manufacturers are motivated to invest more into Linux.  This investment comes in the form of software development to improve the user interface and drivers to make Linux less frustrating – like HP’s Mi on their Mini.  But will people accept a non-Windows interface…?


The iPhone brings the benefit of a browser in your hand, and shows that it needs to have a certain size to be great.  A barrier has been crossed.  What could only have been done on a computer, can now be done on a phone — not as well, but the user is thrilled that a phone can even come close.  All other phone manufacturers are following.  What OS is demanded by the user?  Answer:  they don’t care as long as it is good!  I buy a new phone, I learn a new interface.  So, if the netbook becomes more like a phone…

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Along with browser-phones, wireless carriers are beginning to offer netbooks, because they can bundle wireless broadband data service.  The killer app for netbooks is being always online, kind of like the iPhone…

So.  Now we have phones moving toward the functionality of PCs, and we have PCs selling in phone stores, offering the utility of the iPhone, but with a bigger screen and better keyboard.  There are new PCs with smaller screens than nine inch 16:9 in the market already, and more coming.  The tweeners are back!  But this time they will stick.  Because…

If it is light, hot looking, with great battery life, and has good Web functionality, the user will accept a new interface, because they have learned from phones that it will be OK.  And they are standing in the cell phone store while they think this over.  Therefore…

Non-Windows, non-Intel computers will get a foothold. This is big.

There is a huge financial incentive for PC companies to gain more of the value capture (margin) available in the market.  They can’t do this without viable options to Windows and Intel processors.  So, the PC makers are surely eager to try the path I describe above.

On the other hand, Intel and Microsoft can read the tea leaves and will act.  Intel has already announced roadmaps for Atom variants designed to fight off ARM (and NVIDIA), and is assaulting the mobile device space which ARM has owned.  Microsoft, I predict, will enable lower power processors, like ARM, with Windows.  But they won’t have time to work on this until after Windows 7 launch, so there is period of opportunity for Linux.

There are lots of moving parts, forces and counter-forces.  I won’t predict the winner, but I will predict that we’re about to see a lot of enticing product experiments.


4 Responses to “Netbooks could change everything”

  1. 1 ubuntucat April 22, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    The problem is that most people are used to having no idea what OS is on their phone. They’re used to phones having various interfaces, and they’re used to having software installation limitations on phones.

    Hell, up until the next firmware upgrade, iPhone users have been willing to even put up with a lack of cut and paste on phones!

    People don’t think of phones as computers, so if phones look different from computers or act different from computers, people don’t complain. But people think of netbooks as computers, so if the netbook isn’t running Windows or can’t run Microsoft Office or just looks unfamiliar, Windows users are more likely to be wary of the netbook.

  2. 2 Priscilla April 24, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    Hi Craig,

    I somehow managed to stumble across you blog. I’ve kept a blog for a few years myself. Thought you might be interested in reading this old post and and this one.

    • 3 John May 4, 2009 at 7:42 pm

      Hi Craig. Very interesting article. I remember when OS/2 was on the verge of being a great operating system. Microsoft torpedoed it with the announcement of Windows NT and gave away the SDK. IBM and OS/2 thought they were so superior they continued to charge for their SDK…well, we know who won that marketing campaign….

  3. 4 JimForbes April 25, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    i linked to your blog on Friday and riffed a little on your second point on processsors ands netbooks.
    Wishing you much success on your new venture.
    Jim Forbes

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