Size doesn’t matter (for Netbooks anyway)

I’ve just finished overhauling Wikipedia’s Netbook article which currently does a much better job of reflecting reality than it did previously. In particular, the term ‘Netbook’ pertains to connectivity (which is why all of them have WiFi and many of them are fitted with 3G chips) and has nothing whatsoever to do with size. Notebooks on the other hand were all about size. Introduced in a time when a laptop was (by definition) anything you could fit on your lap, Notebooks were much smaller – about the size of a paper notebook.

Certain vendors would love you to believe that a Netbook is confined to form-factors less than 10 inches (which is largely useless for business productivity applications) and insist that you’ll soon need to run Windows 7 on an Intel Core 2 Duo or Quad to be productive. Unfortunately for them the reality is that thanks to almost-ubiquitous connectivity and supporting cloud computing services, these devices are more than adequate for most purposes. Including business.

And why wouldn’t business want a disposable device that lasts 5-10 years, can be bought at the supermarket for a few hundred dollars and that works out-of-the-box? Forget about imaging, drivers, updates and standard operating environments – the bundled software (like Mac OS X) is ‘moulded’ to the hardware, which is itself a moving target. You’re much better off to let the hardware vendors do their job and focus on adding value via the Internet accessible services you deliver to your end users.

Like it or not, full featured Netbooks are here, and with them a new era of computing – at least for those who have the systems in place to support them (e.g. terminal services, VDI) and/or the agility to migrate to cloud computing (e.g. Google Apps, [Sales]Force.com). It’s only a matter of time until someone introduces an affordable, full-sized (12 inches or above) business grade netbook and then it’s pretty much game over for the Notebook – even I would think twice about the next MacBook refresh if there was a netbook equivalent.

Netbook

An Asus Eee PC netbook.

A netbook is a class of laptop that is light-weight, cheap, low power consumption and optimised for wireless communication and Internet access. Hence the name netbook (as “the device excels in web-based computing performance”) rather than notebook which pertains to size.

Primarily designed for web browsing and e-mailing, netbooks “rely heavily on the Internet for remote access to web-based applications” and are targeted increasingly at cloud computing users who rely on servers and require a less powerful client computer. While the devices range in size from below 5 inches to over 12, most are between 7 and 11 inches and weigh between 2 and 3 pounds.

Netbooks have a wide range of light-weight operating systems including Linux and Windows XP rather than more resource-intensive operating systems like Windows Vista as they have less processing power than traditional laptops.

History

The influx of small form factor laptops categorized as netbooks began in 2007 when Asus unveiled the Intel Celeron-based ASUS Eee PC. The 8.9 × 6.5 in (23 x 17 cm) device weighed about two pounds and featured a 7-inch display, a keyboard approximately 85% the size of a normal keyboard, a custom version of Linux and the ability to run alternate operating systems. Following the EeePC, Everex launched its CloudBook in mid February 2008, MSI released the Wind, Dell and HP both released “Mini” series (the Inspiron Mini and HP Mini) and others soon followed suit.

By late 2008, Netbooks had begun to take mind share away from laptops[10] and overtook iPhone sales by 900,000 units in Q3. It is estimated that almost thirty times more netbooks were sold in 2008 (11.4 million, 70% of which were in Europe) thank in 2007 (400,000) and for 2009 sales are expected to grow a further 189% to 21.5 million. Sales are projected to increase up to 50 million by the year 2012. The trend is being driven by cloud computing and 3G adoption as well as the economic downturn and netbooks are evolving into “super-portable laptops for professionals”.

Early January 2009, two companies introduced ARM architecture based models, indicating a shift from the Intel Atom processor.

The term Netbook

See also: Psion and the term Netbook

Led by the popularization of small-form-factor laptops by Asus and then others, the term ‘netbook’ became a widely used and genericized industry classification rather than a reference to a particular product. By April 2008, Intel had begun officially using the term netbook to recognize a specific sub-category of laptops.

Psion have various trademarks for the term netbook (including U.S. Trademark 75,215,401 and Community Trade Mark 000428250) relating to their “netBook” series that was discontinued in November 2003. Despite prior use of the term dating back to at least as far as 1989 (U.S. Trademark 74,001,501) and having neither used the (now generic) term nor enforced the trademark in over 5 years (after which time it can be considered abandoned for non-use) a batch of cease and desist letters were dispatched on 23 December 2008. Similar applications by MSI (U.S. Trademark 77,580,272) and Coby Electronics (U.S. Trademark 77,590,174) have been recently rejected by the USPTO citing a “likelihood of confusion” under section 2(d).

Hardware

While specifications and features of netbooks continue to evolve (for example with the introduction of 12-inch screens and ARM processors), one report at the end of 2008 suggested the typical netbook featured a 3-lb (1.4 kg) weight, a 9-inch (23 cm) screen, wireless Internet connectivity, Linux or Windows XP, an Intel chip, and a cost of less than US$400.

Netbooks may also forgo a hard disk drive[27] or optical disc drive, instead favoring solid state storage devices such as internal solid-state hard drives and SD cards for their low power consumption, weight, and high durability. All netbooks on the market today feature Wi-Fi wireless networking and many also feature mobile data capabilities such as 3G.

Software

The two main operating systems shipped on netbooks are various netbook-specific distributions of Linux (e.g. Ubuntu) and Microsoft Windows XP. Between one in three and one in four netbooks run Linux, which is almost two orders of magnitude higher than its share on traditional devices but still less than half that of Windows XP (which Microsoft estimate runs on 70% of netbooks).

Microsoft have extended availability of Windows XP for ultra-low cost personal computers from June 2008 until June 2010, possibly to avoid netbooks from gaining market share at the expense of full-featured desktops and laptops and avoid increased use of Linux installations on netbooks. Microsoft is also testing and has demonstrated a version of Windows 7 for this class of devices.

Advanced users may install other operating systems (including other distributions of Linux, editions of Windows XP and Mac OSX) or application software, but users typically rely on cloud computing applications and services which are available via the Internet and require less powerful hardware on the local computer.

External links

2009: The year of the ‘Enterprise Netbook’ (and other cloud clients)

There’s exciting times ahead in 2009 for the enterprise – the maturity of cloud computing services like Google Apps and [Sales]Force.com is finally enabling them to reach to the holy grail of personal computing: reliable, cheap, connected clients, and the OEMs are finally ready to supply the (now rapidly growing) demand.

It’s not surprising that this shift is starting with the netbook (‘a light-weight, low-cost, energy-efficient, highly portable laptop‘), but expect similar devices (Update:Nettops‘) to start marching into the heartland of the desktop (including the enterprise desktop) before long too. I expect PCs and laptops as we know them today to go the way of the dodo within one or two 3-year refresh cycles (maybe 3 for the laggards), and that we’ll be able to buy these devices by the kilo from chinese manufacturers like Lenovo before long.

And why wouldn’t this be the case? On offer are smaller, lighter, “sufficiently capable” devices with few or no moving parts (and thus significantly longer lifetimes – 10 year MTBFs are not unheard of), which boast extended battery lives (8+ hours – enough for a full working day), all at a fraction of the price; order of magnitude cost reductions provide significant incentive to migrate.

The performance race is now well and truly over and chip manufacturers are scrambling to change tack so as to deliver adequate computing power as efficiently and economically as possible. The megahertz myth turned the whole thing into a farce anyway as it has long since been virtually impossible to compare chips by specification, short of conducting application-specific benchmarks; what’s more important; more cores? more cache? more cycles? Or less cost, less energy use, longer battery life and longer lifetimes?

By offloading a lot of the extra work to the server side (typically large, next generation datacenters loaded with commodity PC hardware) the thin client is finally becoming a mass market reality. You’d be forgiven for drawing parallels to the mainframe era, but we had good reason at the time to move to client-server (and good reason now to return).

Here’s what the specs for what I call an ‘Enterprise Netbook’ ought to look like by the second half of this year:

  • 12-14″ display
  • ~2GHz ‘green’ processor
  • 1-2Gb RAM (browsers tend to be heavy on the RAM which is now relatively cheap)
  • 4-40Gb Solid State Disk (SSD)
  • USB-only (‘legacy free’) connectivity
  • Wireless networking (various combinations of WiFi, 3G, etc.)
  • 6-8+ hour battery life
  • 3-5 year warranties

The key attribute missing from today’s generation of consumer devices like the eeePC, MSI Wind and equivalents from the incumbents (Dell, HP, etc.) is a suitable screen, thanks to a 10 inch display ‘glass ceiling’. This is no accident as on one hand Intel want it that way (and are said to be coercing OEMs to ‘keep a lid on it’ at 10.2 inches) and on the other they’re busy bashing the formfactor as being “fine for an hour“. Meanwhile AMD are ignoring it altogether and NVIDIA and VIA gave up on their collaboration last year (although both NVIDIA and VIA are now represented independently). Surely it should have come as no surprise that it was not (yet) going to be possible to forge a market for a third Internet device between laptops and mobiles when there is already some contention between the two.

All is not lost though as Intel’s Atom processor is starting to make its way into enterprise friendly 12-14″ devices (in my opinion Apple have found the sweet spot at 13.3″ with the MacBook line) and is already in production in consumer devices like Dell’s Inspiron Mini 12. This comes at the expense of Core 2 Duo sales as evidenced by last quarter’s appalling results (90% down), but it’s arguably better to cannibalise a Core 2 sale to earn the margin of a Celeron than lose it altogether to a competitor.

So where will these sales go if not to Intel? I touched on this last week in the context of an Apple netbook (which is more a matter of ‘when’ than ‘if’) and I’ve also talked about a ‘cloud client‘ style device based on VIA Eden that I prototyped at Australian Online Solutions over 5 years ago (well before the services to support it existed). With mind-blowing performance being a non-issue (or even a battery-sucking legacy) in this type of device, the door opens up to a myriad chip vendors – almost all of which stem from the ARM family. These RISC chips are (in many ways) better, faster and cheaper than their CISC equivalents (eg Intel’s x86), especially in mobile settings where as recently as 2007 they held a staggering 98% market share.

Bearing in mind that there’s something like 3 mobile devices for every personal computer it’s no wonder then why Apple recently bought PA Semi and Google’s Android is on the platform too. Essentially all Google and Apple need to do to get in the Netbook game is scale up the size of their iPhone and Android designs. Update: Qualcomm are another player to keep an eye on in this space – they’re already up to their necks in Android and just purchased mobile graphics tech from AMD to deliver “more advanced products that redefine next-generation mobile user experiences”. They all have little to fear from Windows Mobile in the mean time (which is due to catch up later this year) nor Windows 7 (which while a breath of fresh air after Vista will be at a significant performance handicap), though they may well face stiff competition from a vibrant ecosystem of Netbook providers.

Of all the vendors, Microsoft will have the biggest challenge ahead (Update: Netbooks become the bane of Microsoft) in justifying the existence (and cost) of a full local operating system and application stack (plus the extra hardware required to support it). My rule of thumb is that commodity software (Windows, Office, etc.) should never cost more than half of the cost of the hardware (especially when it can be had for free), which is fine on a $2,000 PC but less so on a $200 netbook when even Windows XP Embedded costs $90. There is now also the spectre of new action from the EU relating to the bundling of Internet Explorer (last week found to be in violation of the antitrust laws) which could potentially see the single most important component shipped with competitors’ software or removed altogether. Let’s hope something like Midori will come along and save the day because healthy competition is good for all of us and Microsoft still have a lot to offer.

What all this means for enterprise is that there are both dramatic cost savings and a new way of working just around the corner, provided you’re ready with the infrastructure to support the new devices (e.g. cloud computing, application virtualisation, integration, security). We’re working with large enterprises (as we have been for over a decade now) on raising awareness, developing strategy, proving and piloting concepts, governing deployments and managing change and are as excited as they are about the future of cloud computing.