Conspiracy theories about Intel’s role in the “netbook” craze

The last few days working on Save the Netbooks have been enlightening to say the least. It’s surprising that something as mundane as a moniker for a generic class of laptops can be an outlet for the conspiracy theorists, but Mark “Sumocat” Sumimoto (the “Father of Ink Blogging” – which is interesting in itself) at least has got it in his head that Intel created the “netbook” moniker as “part of a move to undercut the OLPC project’s goal of supplying laptops to children in third-world countries“.

To his credit (and unlike most conspiracy theorists), Sumocat presents detailed (if flawed) arguments along with his claims like the Google Trends data on “netbook” usage. This correlates well with things like the February 2008 Bloomberg article where an Intel marketing drone gushed about their plans for “netbooks” that ran through CEO level, followed immediately by a fairly candid blog post which spoke about netbooks generically as a category rather than an Intel product. It predates, however, their full involvement later in the year through with things like the registration of Remember that Psion Teklogix waited until December before unleashing the hounds.

The theory culminates in a post entitled “How to Kill a Trademark” which focuses on prior use of the term “netbook” and suggests that if you “wield enough power [you] can bypass trademark protection”, as per Intel’s “deliberate campaign to genericize another entity’s trademarked name”. The fatal flaw with this theory is that a trademark requires continuous use and this one had been abandoned, both instantaneously and indefinitely by way of the End-of-Life notice (meaning “vendor will no longer be marketing, selling, or promoting a particular product”) and for longer than the 3 year limit on non-use.

Were the trademark still in use and had they acted in a reasonable period then it is very likely that Intel (and pretty much everyone else using the term) would have found themselves in a good deal of trouble. Even the smallest firm with a valid, in-use trademark could have enforced this given the probability of success (lawyers will take on this sort of a fight if there’s a virtually guaranteed payout at the end). However had Psion made a stink earlier in the year they likely would have been attacked by someone like Dell on the basis of abandonment then rather than now. There are similarities here with the Cisco/Apple settlement over the iPhone trademark.

Note that the “reasonable period” is perhaps open to debate but what is sure is that it’s shorter now in the days of the Internet than it was when the propagation rate of the mediums were slower (print, then radio, then television, now Internet). In the age of Twitter the entire lifecycle of a product can take place in the time it takes to even register a trademark and there are many things that can be done to modernise the rickety old trademark system. We’re doing our bit in that we’re working on surfacing “submarine” trademarks but this is just the beginning.

At the end of all this though, it simply doesn’t matter. Intel may have thought they were clever by getting behind these new devices (and only they know their real motives with respect to OLPC), but to assume they could link entangle “netbook” with “atom” (so to speak) was perhaps a bit ambitious, if not downright dangerous. The same applies to Microsoft who tried valiantly to keep the netbooks in the UMPC/ULCPC box with arbitrary restrictions on things like screen size at a measly and arbitrary 10 inches.

I’ve been saying the whole time that “netbooks” are “Internet Notebooks”. Given one of the key features for Internet productivity is screen size I am not at all surprised then to see the availability of full size netbooks out to 13.4″ already, and manufacturers like Acer (just yesterday) pulling out of the sub-10″ marketplace altogether. I’m also not surprised to see alternatives processors (most notably ARM based units like the Freescale) gearing up to take over the lion’s share of sales by being cheaper and more energy efficient.

Just as Microsoft introduced the XMLHTTPRequest object which ultimately led to a thriving marketplace of web based cloud computing applications (e.g. Google Apps), Intel has unleashed a monster that could well devour a large part of its revenue. It will be almost impossible for the WinTel alliance to match the new breed of competitors (at least in their current form of Windows 7 Starter on Intel Atom) so they’ll want to start thinking outside the box (like Windows Mobile 8 on XScale, except that they already sold it to focus on x86). Meanwhile AMD sees no future for [itself in] netbooks so the new kids on the block like Ubuntu Linux on Freescale currently have nothing to fear from the old school, let alone the infamous trademark.