Netbooks Don't Have to Die

Netbooks Can Be Enterprise Tools if Vendors Remember Reasons for Success

So here we are in the new year and the questions keep coming: Is the netbook over and out? The Times seems to think that it is, the victim of user demand for more features and the resulting price tag on those features--"death from above," if you will.

At the other end of the spectrum, Forbes says that netbooks could be overtaken by smartbooks, smaller, cheaper devices that split the difference between smart phones and netbook computers.

I've been thinking more about this since reading a Forbes-in-print article on the death of the PC, an article that featured the rise of desktop virtualization as an alternative to stand-alone personal computers on enterprise desktops. I've talked to enough corporate IT folks to know that desktop virtualization is, in fact, a growing trend, but it's running headlong into another trend -- an increasingly mobile workforce.

If you need to access your virtual desktop from the road, you're not going to count on the machines at your hotel's business center, your client's spare desktop machine, or an Internet cafe to get your work done. No, you need a keyboard and monitor that's in your bag, ready to hop on the Internet wherever a connection can be found. I may be way off base here, but that sounds a lot like a netbook to me.

Here are the keys to the success of these computers: they need to be light and inexpensive, with as large a keyboard and screen as can be fitted while meeting the weight/cost curve at an advantageous spot. Yes, if more features can be wedged in while keeping the machine light and cheap users will be happy, but feature bloat isn't a winning recipe in this category.

I'm reminded in some ways of the manner in which pickup trucks have evolved. Twenty years ago Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge, Nissan and Toyota each made a small pickup truck. They fit in the footprint of the average sedan, had (generally) four-cylinder engines, and were intended for small hauling and transportation jobs. Dodge broke the category with the "mid-size" Dakota, and suddenly "bigger is better" became the watchword of the industry. I drive a full-size Chevy pickup from the mid-1990s, and today's Toyota and Nissan small pickup trucks are roughly the same size. Today's full-size pickups tend to block out the sun as they pass, and it's impossible to buy a true small truck.

ASUS, HP and other vendors need to keep light and inexpensive in mind as they develop new highly-portable computers. Yes, make sure that the display technology keeps up with developments, but don't lose sight of the factors that made the machines desirable in the first place. Give me something that I like to carry (since it doesn't hurt my shoulder), will let me get into the apps or virtual desktop I need, and is cheap enough to keep the accountants happy. That's a winning combination that will keep netbooks thoroughly alive for some time to come.

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