The lameness of netbooks

Tech Life

As a long time reader of Jeff Atwood’s excellent blog, Coding Horror, I take exception to his post A Democracy of Netbooks.

In it, Atwood criticises another blog post, Fast Food, Apple Pies, and Why Netbooks Suck, written by Joey DeVilla. DeVilla had written:

The end result, to my mind, is a device that occupies an uncomfortable, middle ground between laptops and smartphones that tries to please everyone and pleases no one. Consider the factors:

  • Size: A bit too large to go into your pocket; a bit too small for regular day-to-day work.
  • Power: Slightly more capable than a smartphone; slightly less capable than a laptop.
  • Price: Slightly higher than a higher-end smartphone but lacking a phone’s capability and portability; slightly lower than a lower-end notebook but lacking a notebook’s speed and storage.

To summarize: Slightly bigger and pricier than a phone, but can’t phone. Slightly smaller and cheaper than a laptop, but not that much smaller or cheaper. To adapt a phrase I used in an article I wrote yesterday, netbooks are like laptops, but lamer.

To which Atwood replied:

This is so wrongheaded I am not sure where to begin.

Well, I know where to begin. I read Atwood’s post, and it was an interesting read for sure, but it failed to convince me. From my direct experience with netbooks, the opinion I’ve formed about them is pretty much similar to DeVilla’s, and I think his summary (the bit quoted at the beginning) is fairly accurate. My biggest peeve with most netbooks I put my hands on is their overall poor usability and design. But back to Atwood’s post.

I happen to agree with Dave Winer’s definition of “netbook”:

  1. Small size.
  2. Low price.
  3. Battery life of 4+ hours. Battery can be replaced by user.
  4. Rugged.
  5. Built-in wifi, 3 USB ports, SD card reader.
  6. Runs my software.
  7. Runs any software I want; no platform vendor to decide what’s appropriate.
  8. Competition. Users have choice and can switch vendors at any time.

Judging from the netbooks I have handled so far, none complies with this list in full. What I noticed:

  1. Small size — Yes. Sometimes I’d say ‘awkward’ size.
  2. Low price — Well, sometimes it is, but the lower the crappier. And if I have to spend 250 Euros for a crappy piece of portable hardware, sorry, but I very much prefer an iPod touch. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
  3. Battery life of 4+ hours. Battery can be replaced by user. — I don’t own a netbook, though I have extensively tried some of them (because I don’t like talking about things I don’t know). But I asked around and have been told by people who own them that under normal, continued use, very rarely they get four hours of battery life out of them.
  4. Rugged — Oh, undoubtedly.
  5. Built-in wifi, 3 USB ports, SD card reader — Yes, of course.
  6. Runs my software — Well, I am not a programmer. The only software I’ve written is in Commodore BASIC. But let’s say I’m a Mac developer: how many netbooks can really run my software natively? Very few, I reckon.
  7. Runs any software I want; no platform vendor to decide what’s appropriate — Again, I want Mac OS X software on a netbook. Without serious hacking, that can be done only on one Dell netbook if I’m not mistaken. That’s not enough.
  8. Competition. Users have choice and can switch vendors at any time — Okay.

Atwood continues (the emphasis is his):

Netbooks are the endpoint of four decades of computing — the final, ubiquitous manifestation of “A PC on every desk and in every home”. But netbooks are more than just PCs. If the internet is the ultimate force of democratization in the world, then netbooks are the instrument by which that democracy will be achieved.

No monthly fees and contracts.

No gatekeepers.

Nobody telling you what you can and can’t do with your hardware, or on their network.

To dismiss netbooks as like laptops, but lamer is to completely miss the importance of this pivotal moment in computing — when pervasive internet and the mass production of inexpensive portable computers finally intersected. I’m talking about unlimited access to the complete sum of human knowledge, and free, unfettered communication with anyone on earth. For everyone.

A little excursus first: from a philosophical standpoint, I’m with Atwood. Internet is indeed a force of democratization, and netbooks, being so cheap, can offer Internet access to a wider range of people. But the problem is: how do people really use this democracy? The fact that today anyone can put their content on the Web, and that anyone can post their views in any site that has a comment section, is a double-edged sword. And the result is a mixed bag: some very good content and intelligent debate on one side, a great lot of useless, inane, rude, illiterate, ignorant, close-minded drivel on the other. I’m glad there’s democracy on the Internet, but I wish there were some sort of education on how to properly use it. I believe it’s time to teach it in school, everywhere.

DeVilla thinks that netbooks are like laptops, but lamer, but I think he refers mainly to their technical quality and general user experience and usability, and I agree with him — most of the netbooks I’ve seen are cheap, badly shrunk laptops. Atwood instead emphasises their social and cultural value. And I see his point: netbooks are important, democratic tools. That’s exactly why I believe that, currently, netbooks are still inadequate to completely fulfil such an important role.

Exactly because they’re the instrument of the people, I believe they must be more usable — have better keyboards, better input devices, better screens, and better software as well. Unlike Winer (and Atwood), I believe that a good netbook shouldn’t run any OS indiscriminately, but a tailored OS environment which can provide usability software-side. It doesn’t have to be a closed OS, mind you, but something that’s built for a netbook from the start. This is why I think Google is on the right track with its Chrome OS and I’m very curious to see what the final product is going to be. This is why I like an idea such as the Litl (which emphasises the possibility of a computer with a ‘home appliance’ flair). Netbooks with a shoehorned operating system that was not built with a netbook’s form factor and tech specs in mind, are bound to be a mess, usability-wise. Or they can only be appreciated by computer nerds. But I don’t see them as an instrument for everyone, yet. Their interface is still too complex for that task. They’re not designed to be professional tools anyway, so why not be more user-friendly?

The part where I disagree most with Atwood is when he writes (again, emphasis is his):

Netbooks aren’t an alternative to notebook computers. They are the new computers.

Cheap and crappy? Maybe those early models were, but having purchased a new netbook for $439 shipped, it is difficult for me to imagine the average user ever paying more than $500 for a laptop.

That’s quite the assumption. Netbooks are an alternative to normal-sized laptops: it really depends on what the average user wants to do with a portable computer. I still think that, mainly due to their screen size and their rather uncomfortable keyboards and input systems, netbooks are only good for surfing the Web, handling emails, browsing photos and writing the occasional document. For any more complex need, they start to get inadequate. Laptops have a remarkably appealing characteristic: they are as powerful as desktops and they package that power in a portable-enough form.

And one doesn’t even need to be a true professional to want to choose a laptop over a netbook. I am essentially a writer and my tools are word processors and text editors for the most part, but I also need tools to handle and post-process my digital and film photographs. I would never consider buying a netbook in its current state. A writing session longer than 8–10 minutes on any netbook I’ve tried has proven to be a fatiguing, annoying, uncomfortable affair. Are netbooks lighter than laptops? Yes. Are they cheaper? Most of the time (although there are laptops at $439). Do I want carpal tunnel syndrome? No, thanks.

So, the average user can be willing to pay more than $500 for a laptop if this laptop gives them a better build quality, a full keyboard, some more space to rest their wrists when they’re typing, some more screen estate, a better screen that doesn’t burn their eyes after 30 minutes of staring at it — not to mention the power of a desktop machine and the ability to run any software decently and to perform more complex tasks equally decently. In any case, from how I see it, the appeal of a laptop over a netbook is the potential of doing all those things even if the user doesn’t need them at the time of deciding a purchase.

In other words, the only strong point of a netbook is its price. For that, it is a tempting purchase for people who are really low on budget and want some portable computer right now. However, faced with the choice of buying a 400 Euro netbook and a 900 Euro MacBook I have witnessed many people thinking exactly like I would: the MacBook costs 500 Euros more, but it’s more desirable for it has a better build quality, better features (larger and brighter screen, full-size keyboard, huge trackpad with multitouch technology, more processing power, an optical drive, a very good battery life, etc.) and, lest we forget, even a longer lifespan (as it often happens with Apple computers). Yes, it’s bulkier and less portable than your garden variety netbook, but it’s also more versatile. A netbook can do a few things rather well. A 13.3-inch MacBook (or any small screen common laptop for that matter) can do those same things better and then some. It is more expensive — or less affordable, if you want — but it brings more value in the medium-to-long run. If I impulsively spend 400 Euros for a netbook today, and then after a while I realise I should move on to something better — a better, more usable netbook or a full-size laptop altogether — I will have to spend another 300–400 Euros or more. From this perspective, a netbook isn’t such a good investment.

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  1. I mostly agree with you. I think that netbooks work only for the low price, and for low price I mean sub 300€ and at that price point you can’t get a 6 cell battery.
    I think that the REAL netbook is a 9″ computer with a SSD and low power consumption cpu: it’s quite rugged, quite cheap, light, small and with long battery life.
    I also agree with you that what is missing in the netbook world is a simple, custom interface that can works perfectly with small screens and keyboards (something like Moblin and Chrome OS).
    In the end, I find netbooks a mixed bag and for me are interesting only for the low price: in fact I prefer something like CULV notebooks. I hope things will change in the future.

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  3. This is why I like an idea such as the Litl … the possibility of a computer with a ‘home appliance’ flair. ”

    Right! The whole problem with netbook-versus-laptop debates — really, any hardware debates — is that these are only meaningful if you ask “what will the device be used for? Where will it be used? Does it fit the purpose for which it was designed?” Any debate that isn’t framed in a usage context is pretty much useless.

    We are beginning to see the oft-predicted transformation of the internet into an essential utility, like water or electricity. (Granted, it has a way to go yet). We don’t have one-size- fits-all general purpose devices for electricity or water, in general we have specific consumer devices that are highly evolved for what they do: the toaster, the tv, the dishwasher. Meanwhile we are also seeing that the platform for applications is moving off the hard drive and onto the web — the web *is* the new platform. The success of Facebook, flash games for kids, Gmail, Flikr, and various online video/tv sites speaks for itself.

    So it makes perfect sense for consumer web devices to emerge that are adapted to particular environments and use cases and that seek to do it better in that context. Whether these are called netbooks or whatever is largely irrelevant provided these succeed at what they do. Enter the litl webbook for the home. At litl we know that people will see our webbook as belonging to the netbook category and that’s fine. But comparing our webbook to a general purpose laptop or to cheap netbooks misses the point that our device is meant for specifically for leisure use in the home and adds carefully designed features towards this end that standard netbooks/laptops lack, such as our innovative new web-based UI, easel mode, zero maintenance, and our own platform for app development (litl channels).

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