The Netbook Won’t Kill Personal Computers!

March 18th, 2009

It seems that the flash in the pan du jour sometimes overwhelms common sense. Take the netbook, which has reportedly exhibited sharply increased sales of late.

Now the concept of a netbook is simple enough. You take a standard note-book computer, shrink it down, use a low-power processor, smaller hard drive, wireless adapter and a reduced amount of RAM. Load onto it an operating system without serious resource requirements, such as Windows XP or Linux, and you have a relatively crippled personal computer that can surf the Internet, handle email and perform simple word processing and checkbook management tasks.

These days, the tech media is busy clamoring for Apple to jump onto this bandwagon, but you have to wonder just where this technology is apt to go. Some folks evidently think that the netbook can assume a large portion of the personal computer marketplace, stealing sales from regular note-books and desktops alike.

That has to take us back to the reason why people buy netbooks in the first place and what purpose they fill. In the current shaky economic climate, maybe it’s all about cheap. Consider that you can buy netbooks for several hundred dollars less than even the least expensive regular note-book, and they do offer the convenience of easy transport. Looking at the meta picture, we all know that traditional note-books have begun to surpass desktops in sales. Apple leads the pack with 71% of Macs sold in the last quarter of 2008 being MacBooks or MacBook Pros.

This state of affairs has, unfortunately, gotten some to thinking that maybe the era of traditional personal computers is over and done with and that we’ll all soon be doing everything on tinier computing devices. The netbook is cited as a prime example.

However, there are lots of people who demand more of their computers than email, browsing and word processing. Millions of people actually create things on their computer, and not just book manuscripts. They don’t just use the simple image editing tools in, say, Apple’s iPhoto, but utilize many of the powerful features of Adobe Photoshop. Perhaps they build publications, such as books and magazines, in Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress.

Rest assured that no netbook would fulfill even the minimum system requirements of these applications, let alone those involved in doing 3D rendering for movie special effects, or if they did, you wouldn’t find the creative experience terribly pleasant.

But these are but a few examples of using personal computers to make something, not just serve the needs of passive observers. Even in the latter situation, there are certainly times when you’ll want to explore the frontiers of your computer’s power. Living a minimalist existence won’t cut it.

Indeed, the best note-books available today are clearly meant to be desktop replacements. The MacBook Pro, for example, shares parts with the iMac so you can bet that it’s capable of matching the latter in many respects in the normal run of benchmarks. Many content creators use Mac note-books on the road to build things. They are critical work tools. No netbook would fulfill this function.

This doesn’t mean that netbooks can’t carve out a significant niche in the marketplace, and if they do, there are surely ways that Apple can profit from entering the fray. But I highly doubt they’d get involved simply by coming up with a cheapened MacBook. Yes, there may be a purpose for an Apple note-book with a smaller display, but it may end up being largely a junior version of the MacBook Air, with a price to match.

Instead, if you examine the possibilities inherent in the iPhone 3.0 software that Apple introduced this week, you might see a possible springboard for the Apple variant of the netbook theme. While it’s true that Apple executives have already said — correctly — that the iPhone may serve many of the functions of a netbook, you will quickly run up against its limitations in screen and keyboard size.

However, Apple has already built and sold a netbook, only it occurred many years ago. It was called the eMate 300, essentially a grown up version of the Newton handheld with a larger screen and a miniaturized physical keyboard. In those days, my son actually had one, loaned to him for a few months by the elementary school he attended at the time.

I have to admit that I regarded it then as a product without a purpose, simply because there wasn’t a whole lot of software available to explore its possibilities. But that was then and this is now.

Apple circa 2009 has built a gigantic ecosystem around the iPhone and iPod touch. There are over 25,000 applications available, and the 1,000 additional APIs present in iPhone 3.0 will provide developers with many more possibilities to build software for both entertainment and business use.

You can certainly imagine a doctor making his rounds in a hospital with iPhone in hand, plugging it into various and sundry instruments to check patients. But even more fascinating is the possibility of using an enlarged iPhone for those purposes. Like its smaller bother it would be connected via Bluetooth or perhaps Wi-Fi with the main record system. As medications are prescribed, the information would be compared with existing data, and the doctor would be able to determine instantly whether the dosage is suitable or whether other medications or a patient’s condition would possibly cause adverse effects. The data interface used might remind you of the system they employ to check the condition of your car at the dealer’s service area, except that it would plug into the iPhone or Apple netbook to report the patient’s condition instantaneously and, once again, compare the readings to the ones previously recorded. And of course, an iPhone could be used by car dealers as well in place of the systems they use now.

So many possibilities, and I can’t begin to consider them all. But I bet you can and you will quickly see where an Apple netbook would have a useful existence. But not at the expense of the traditional personal computer.

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11 Responses to “The Netbook Won’t Kill Personal Computers!”

  1. Stone Bryson says:

    Well, I am Mac-ignorant, but I can address the netbook craze.

    As a person who is desperate for a portable computer, I can tell you I was tempted at first; the size is perfect… and the price was definitely right. Then I really began to explore customer feedback forums, and I paused. Folks seem to run into problems with longevity, especially when it comes to the wireless capability (that appears to konk out pretty quickly with many models, and what’s the point of a portable computer if the damned I-net connection stops working?), and the complete lack of software options suddenly made it very unattractive. I would want to be able to use mine for uploading my website as well as surfing and e-mail; since I use FrontPage to build mine, and since adding that program is not an option on a netbook…

    Hence my quandary.

    Unless they really expand the parameters of what netbooks can do, I agree they will not replace standard laptops, much less personal computers. Without major improvements I anticipate it going the way of the 8-track…

  2. Louis Wheeler says:

    Apple is unlikely to enter this market unless it can make a real contribution to usability and efficiency. That is, unless Apple can solve needs which the customer is not aware is lacking. It’s how Apple can grow the market. But, Apple will not enter it if there is no growth.

    When Apple entered the music player market, the pundits said that it was too late for Apple to gain any market share. The field was sewed up, because the iPod was wimpy compared to what was already being offered.

    This turned out to be untrue, because the customers were not getting the equipment and the services they needed. The iPod took off when the iTunes Music Store offered an entirely new way of purchasing music. Then, the other music players were no competition.

  3. I am sure that there are all kinds of uses for personal computers that require lots of computing power and a lot of monitor space.

    In my case, at home I am working on a full score for a musical. My software of choice is Finale, and I can assure you that I need the full capabilities of this leading application for music notation. I have have a 20 inch iMac plus a second 20 inch monitor and for the first time, in writing music with Finale, I can actually see enough of the score at one time, as well as all of the tool bars and various other control windows, to work efficiently and happily.

    At work I have essentially the same computer setup but I am working as an engineer in aerospace. I typically have multiple applications open, which at times may include a virtual Windows XP machine running in Parallels as well as a Timbuktu connection to a Windows PC at one of our regional centers. It is vaguely unnerving to see two Windows windows running on my Mac.

    As long as people to real work with their PCs, there will be a need for the sort of performance and screen space provided by desktop computers.

  4. Andrew says:

    Why can’t a netbook run Frontpage? Frontpage is a Windows application and most netbooks today run Windows XP.

    An Aton-powered netbook is about equivalent to a 5-year-old high-end PC laptop in all respects save graphics, so Frontpage should run fairly well.

  5. An iPod touch works well for mail and surfing, as well as casual games.

  6. DaveD says:

    Great article!!!

    The “netbook” does serve a purpose that is to provide a convenient access to the Internet wherever you are. The iPhone/iPod Touch provide even a higher convenience level to the ‘Net and yet, that is not their main function. Ultra portable laptops have been around for a long time. Besides obvious difference in performance and features, it is the low, low price that made the netbooks very popular.

    However, the netbooks have only been around for a couple of years. It could be just another fad product. There might be durability issues awaiting due to the low cost, low profit model. The companies doing the manufacturing may not be in the business a few years from now when the profit picture darken. I hear Dell screaming in a darken room.

    The netbooks are best for short-time use. If not, I can see ergonomic issues in the future.

    The 12″ PowerBook is beloved for its convience size and power. I would like to see Apple do a smaller notebook that doesn’t carry the MacBook Air price tag.

  7. Bill in NC says:

    I doubt people are doing production Photoshop work on anything less than a 17″ MacBook Pro.

    Most of us are indeed websurfing, using office applications, or productivity applications like TurboTax that only make use of a fraction of a Core2Duo’s power.

    Netbooks are cheap (most around $300), and is is easy to load Leopard onto them.

    They will remain a threat to Apple’s laptop offerings, especially the MacBook Air.

    If you can live with a 10″ screen the netbook is a screaming deal compared to the MacBook Air.

  8. Stone Bryson says:

    @ Andrew:
    Andrew wrote:

    Why can’t a netbook run Frontpage? Frontpage is a Windows application and most netbooks today run Windows XP.
    An Aton-powered netbook is about equivalent to a 5-year-old high-end PC laptop in all respects save graphics, so Frontpage should run fairly well.

    There is not enough space on a netbook to load the program to one. It would probably work IF it would fit… 🙂

  9. Bill in NC says:

    Netbooks from Asus, Wind, etc. come with regular 2.5″ SATA drives, normally 120-160GB.

    You could easily replace the stock drive with a 500GB, 7200RPM drive (under $150) if you chose.

    Only some netbooks like Dell use a proprietary flash module for storage – but even for Dell you can buy a replacement Runcore 32GB flash for $120, or 64GB for $240.

    Here’s another good article on netbooks:

  10. Walter says:

    This one always makes me giggle. Over the last 30 years, I’ve lost count of the number of things that were going to “kill the PC.”

    There will always be people who want locally stored data (and lots of it). So cloud computing is no contender.

    There will always be people who need big screens and fast processors (gamers and designers, for sure). So the netbook and even notebook are no contender.

    And so on.

    Sitting at a desk with a generous display, a full -sized keyboard, a real mouse, and fast computer just can’t be beat for everyday work and play.

  11. james braselton says:


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