The dawn of the micronotebook


Farpoint Group –

I just got back from the Networld+Interop show in Las Vegas, and I'm pleased to report that the world of networking is alive and well. Of course, most of the interesting stuff in networking is wireless, but you probably already knew that. The wireless sessions at the conference were for the most part packed - interest in mobilizing workforces remains high. And it now appears likely that the desktop of the future will of course have AC power running to it, but the phone and notebook computer there will be wireless.

Speaking of notebooks, though, it's been rightly pointed out that even the smallest of notebooks is probably too big to be something one will want to take everywhere, wireless connectivity or not. Of course, the single-device paradox will always be with us. The smaller the device, the worse the impacts of the paradox - and that's my incentive for writing this particular column.

Many people now use notebooks as their primary or even only computer. They are in every way the equivalent of the desktop computer, albeit with a limited degree of expandability and configurability in most cases. But they are usually expandable and configurable enough for most people to be quite happy with them, and the rapid decline in prices we've seen in recent years leads me to conclude that most professionals will eventually use a notebook as their only computer. Both Windows XP and Apple notebooks are available in a broad range of form factors. We use the following general categories to describe these:

  • Macronotebooks (or meganotebooks) - These are those big, hulking beasts with 17-inch displays, and an emphasis on desktop replacement instead of mobility. They tend to have gorgeous displays, but they're too heavy to travel with unless you spend a lot of time at the gym. Examples include Apple's groundbreaking 17-inch PowerBook G4 and Sony's A190. Some of these are optimized for gaming, and all of them are great for watching movies.
  • Mainstream notebooks - This is what most people end up with. Most designs today are two-spindle, which mean that they have an optical drive and a hard drive; the 3.5-inch floppy is thankfully going the way of its 5.25-inch predecessor. USB drives can take the place of a built-in floppy for emergency booting on many machines today. But I digress. Mainstream notebooks usually have a 14- or 15-inch display, and weigh about seven pounds or so. Great notebooks are available for less than $1,000 - my current favorite is the Averatec 3150P, which is also very lightweight. As you might guess, size and weight are the most important criteria in picking a notebook for my own use.
  • Ultraportables - These are two-piece designs, with a small one-spindle (hard drive only) notebook that docks to a base containing ports, an optical drive, and other accessories. This is my preferred form factor - I recently replaced my trusty IBM X20 with an X40. These are pricy but worth it if you travel a lot. I usually leave the base home and only take it with me when I'm in some foreign land and want to watch a DVD movie at night. The X40 weighs a little more than two pounds, and is perfect for me (and likely you as well, unless you always like to watch movies or burn CDs or DVDs while on the road and thus need the optical drive all the time). Note that you may not need the dock - a USB- or PC Card-attached optical drive might be a better choice and even more portable. I used a couple of single-spindle Mitsubishi Amity CNs for a number of years in the mid 1990s in exactly that way.
  • Mininotebooks - And, in fact, the single-spindle notebook may not be all that bad an idea for many. The latest incarnation is the Sony VAIO VGN-X505ZP, a very sleek (and, at $3,000+, very expensive) mini. Think of a mini as the top half of an ultraportable - and you may just pick the ultraportable, like I did. But you might also look at the Toshiba R100, or the Sharp Actius MM20 if the mini works for you. The Japanese have long held a fascination with making things as small as possible, and the concept of the mini- (and micro-) notebook most certainly originated there. The IBM PalmTop PC 110 from 1995 was the first real member of this class (as far as I know). One could argue, though, that the Poqet PC was really the first, although it ran only DOS and had a screen that was really hard to read. Today's JVC 7310 is a great example of a Japan-only mini that's available in the US via Dynamism, a company that Americanizes Japanese high-tech products and sells and supports them in the US.
  • Tablet PC - These are based on a touch-screen metaphor, with extensions to Windows to allow handwriting recognition and gesture-based control. Many are "convertibles" that also have keyboards. They've not set the market on fire, mostly because they're too expensive and many find them clumsy to use (not to mention fragile). We do expect tablet features (i.e., a touch screen and appropriate software) to be incorporated into many notebooks in the future regardless.

And that brings us to a very innovative and controversial space in notebooks: the micronotebook. As we noted above, even an ultraportable can be too large to carry with you everywhere. So, why not apply modern technology and build a notebook that's only a little bigger than a PDA?

Yes, you read that right - a full, Windows XP notebook in a tiny, tiny package, on the order of one pound! This would have been the stuff of science fiction only a few years ago, and yet a few of these are about to hit the market - we saw demos of two of these (the FlipStart and the OQO) in the Mobile Communicators session at Interop. And, yes, they include wireless LANs in many cases, making them the perfect office and road companions.

OK, maybe not perfect - but let me return to that in a moment. For now, let's meet the micros:

  • FlipStart - This one comes from Vulcan, Paul Allen's flagship company. I really like the keyboard on this one, although it did seem to get a bit warm in use.
  • OQO - This one gets the style award. The screen slides rather than flips over the keyboard, which didn't have the solid feel of the FlipStart. But the overall form factor was better, and the multi-function cable is pretty cool. I also liked the docking station.
  • Tiqit - This looks a bit like an oversized BlackBerry, with an exposed keyboard and a fixed screen. It's slower, larger, and heavier than the other two, but still very nice.

All of these computers have either built-in wireless or the ability to add WLAN or WWAN functionality through an expansion connector. I believe Wi-Fi will be a standard feature in all future micros. Regardless, there's no real difference in functionality between a micro and any other notebook. These are real computers, not PDAs. Expect prices in the $1,500-$2,000 range.

Of course, one might ask whether it's a good idea to carry around a $2,000 full-blown computer with you everywhere you go. The two-thumbs keyboard that seemed like such a good idea on PDAs and phones might get pretty tiresome on a larger device like a micronotebook. And, of course, lose it or drop it and you've got a serious problem indeed.

But the counterargument is, of course, that now you just have a single platform to deal with - your mobile looks just like your desktop and, indeed, can in fact be your desktop, just like a larger notebook with appropriate docks and peripherals. I think, however, until we get some real-world user experience with the micros and see how the buying public reacts to them, that the jury is out. At $1,000 I would enthusiastically recommend them based on what I've seen so far. And, of course, I want one no matter what!

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