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  • 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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