Netbooks, Notebooks and Cloud Computing

My response to the Are netbooks quietly driving us toward cloud computing? article turned into an article in its own right:

I’ve been saying for a long time that netbooks and cloud computing are intrinsically linked – indeed we developed something akin to a nettop 5 or 10 years ago at Australian Online Solutions but dropped it because web tools like SquirrelMail just didn’t cut the mustard compared to Gmail and its ilk (that and we’re a services company!).

A netbook (a portmanteau of “Internet Notebook”) is a single-purpose device whose hardware and software is tuned for web browsing. Adequate RAM and CPU are required (as opposed to “abundant”) but minimal local storage and graphics are called for. Indeed in terms of data loss and breaches read/write local storage is a liability!

Pixels are important though (if not physical screen size) and it’s good to see that devices like MSI’s new 13.4 inch X320 are finally shedding the shackles imposed by vendors like Intel and Microsoft, whereby discount chips and licenses were only offered for physically small devices so as to pigeon hole them and avoid cannibalising premium sales.

There’s nothing wrong with having an expensive Apple-style netbook (which by shedding features for supporting general-purpose use, like optical drives, magnetic media, graphics hardware, etc. are smaller, cheaper and run longer) and as you will see this year, nothing wrong with having a cheap, truly embedded single-purpose device running Linux on Arm. The third category (basically today’s netbooks) fall somewhere in between.

I expect the industry to settle on ~13.3 inch ARM devices that run customised linux distributions for a (business) day at a time, for us power users to opt for more capable generic devices and for the distinction between a “netbook” and a “notebook” to blur over the coming years (as it did with the “migration” from laptop to notebook).

In summary, netbooks are facilitating cloud computing as much as they are being facilitated by it. It is a symbiotic relationship and neither would be the same without the other (a netbook 10 years ago for example would be of limited utility without SaaS like Google Apps and similarly, netbooks can unlock much of the value proposition of cloud computing).

That’s part of the reason why we’ve formed the ‘Save the Netbooks’ grassroots campaign (http://www.savethenetbooks.com/) to protect the term, though the primary motivator is our disdain for intellectual property abuse (the netbook trademark was more akin to a minefield in the intellectual property wasteland than a valuable asset for the taking in our opinion).

PS ABI Research predict 35 million units will ship this year rising to 139 million in 2013.