Thursday, May 27, 2010

Will The iPad Kill The Netbook?

Ever since Apple announced the iPad, there have been countless stories in the press about the iPad's effect on the netbook market.  I'm a big fan of netbooks and I agree that the netbook market is in trouble but it's not because of the iPad.

It's because of Windows.

Now, I don't mean this as a piece of simple-minded anti-MS snark (though I am fully capable ;-).  I'm serious.  Windows is the problem with netbooks.  Installing Windows on a netbook changes the device from a small effective portable Internet interaction device into a tiny, underpowered, laptop computer.

In the beginning of the netbook revolution, hardware makers chose Linux.  The first generation of netbooks featured small screens (7-9 inch) and solid-state disks.  To make use of this platform, they pretty much had to use Linux because of its small footprint and easy customization allowing manufacturers the freedom to create user interfaces appropriate to the device.  The fact that the OS license was free didn't hurt either given the price points that netbooks originally held.

So what went wrong?

First, Microsoft was able to respond to the threat to its consumer OS monopoly by releasing a version of Windows XP with ultra-cheap licensing provided that the computer was suitably underpowered.  Asus, for example, sold both Linux and Windows versions of it's netbooks for a time.  Both models cost the same but the Linux model had a larger drive.  Why? Because the Windows license placed a cap on size of the drive that would qualify the computer for the low-cost license.

Second, the Linux distributions supplied by the netbook makers were not very good.  I can personally attest to that.  My editor's eeePC 901 (pictured above with my own HP Mini 1116NR) came with the Asus version of Xandros and frankly, it sucked.  After struggling with it for several months, I replaced the Xandros with Ubuntu 9.04 Netbook Remix and now the machine is a delight.

Finally, in response to the inappropriate user interface Windows provides for small screen devices, netbook makers made netbooks larger with 10-12 inch screens and they gave up on solid-state drives.  Almost all netbooks today come with slow 160 GB hard disks.  So now you have a slow 12 inch laptop that costs about the same as a "real" laptop and isn't really that portable anymore.  No wonder nearly one-third of netbook shoppers are buying IPads instead.

Interface, Interface, Interface.

But the iPad should not be directly competitive with netbooks at the conceptual level.  In many ways the iPad is a remarkable device for content consumption.  Unlike a Windows computer, it requires virtually no system administration.  This makes the device a perfect "television of the future" where one just uses it to passively consume content.  However, its lack of a real keyboard and limited connectivity options makes it a poor choice as a portable Internet interaction device; a role that the netbook hardware platform excels in.

Clearly, Apple devised a near perfect user interface for a tablet, something Microsoft was never able to do.  It is possible that the next generation of netbooks will do better.  There have been a number of announcements of upcoming models that will be based on ARM chips using operating systems, such as Android, better suited to mobile devices.  Even as much as I like Ubuntu's netbook remix, it's still a crude hack to shoehorn a desktop OS onto a small screen computer.

Thanks for listening!  See you again soon.