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The Inspiration behind Netbooks

Posted by: Steve Hamm on December 11, 2008

Suddenly, Netbooks are all the rage. Turns out the UMPC (ultramobile) form factors were a bit too small and too expensive to make a mass market, but the Netbook is JUST RIGHT. I’m doing some comparison shopping right now since I’ll likely need a machine for reporting out the next book I’m working on. (Involves spending some time in Africa) The MSI Wind and Asus Eee 901 look like the best bets, with prices in the $400 to $600 range.

This JUST RIGHT concept is fascinating. It’s one of the lessons that has been learned over and over again in the 40-year history of portable computing. The industry thrashes around with a set of ideas and technologies and then hits on something. For outsiders, the hits may seem to come out of the blue. But for the inventors and product developers, they’re hard won.

The Netbook concept has an interesting provenance. Clearly it was inspired in part by the One Laptop Per Child organization and its XO computer for children in poor countries. Another stimulus was Transmeta’s bid to come up with a brand new processor architecture for small portable computers—which scared Intel into coming up with the Atom chip.

Another formative factor was Project Hoover, an initiative dreamed up by Mark Anderson, head of Strategic News Service, one of the most successful high-tech newsletters. Back in 1997 he convened a meeting of some of the leaders in the PC industry in an effort to focus them on creating a new generation of devices for emerging nations. After a couple of days of discussions, people from Compaq, Dell, AMD, Intel, Stratus, etc. went on their ways, but Anderson kept pecking away at the idea—and publishing his thoughts. What emerged was the concept of the Carry Along PC, or CA PC.

The idea was to create devices that were stable, durable, portable, inexpensive and just the right size and weight. Minimum screen size: 9 inches across. Weight: about 2 pounds. Hey, that’s a Netbook.

Anderson’s prediction today: “It will be the best selling computer ever made because it’s a great computer for the human body.”

He has one quibble: the name. It suggests that these devices are just for Net browsing, e-mail, and IMing, when they’re really smaller, lighter, less expensive notebook computers.

Wish I had squeezed the Hoover episode into the book.

Reader Comments

Jean-Yves Cyr

December 11, 2008 12:26 PM

a 10 inches display I think it's the best but as long as the display have NO anti glare I wont get one. I can't imaging working on this with a light in the back.
It's like going back 20 yeats ago wan users keep complain about no anti glare.

RS Love

December 11, 2008 2:05 PM

I'm reading your article from a new HP Mini 1000 that Costco is now selling. It's a terrific netbook and the keyboard is excellent. First generation but very impressive.

RS Love
Palo Alto, CA


December 12, 2008 6:24 AM

I'm really looking forward to getting an HP Mini 1000, when the MIE version is released.

Linux boots and runs faster and does not require all the maintenance (viruses, spyware, disk defragmentation, etc.) that Windows does.

I think the real bonus with these devices is when they are small, fast and hassle free.

Steve 'Chippy' Paine

December 12, 2008 6:33 AM

Hi Steve.

Is your book available as an ebook anwhere? I'd like to review it for UMPCPortal and i'm not back in the UK for a few weeks ( have it)



December 12, 2008 6:53 AM

I am reading your article from a Blue Samsung NC10. I have no regrets or complaints with this machine. I love the form factor. I think that Apple will regret not offering such a computer. If they do they can afford to be at the high end of the market and still offer something which business and consumers will purchase.

Marco Polo

December 12, 2008 8:01 AM

"they're really smaller, lighter, less expensive notebook computers." - Really? Have you used one of these things? They're slow as molasses, especially when running Vista. That's why these things are getting returned in droves.

Yes, they're small and light, but they don't have the horsepower to do much. Surf the web, read some email, but don't expect it to be as responsive as full featured notebook or desktop.


December 12, 2008 8:43 AM

as an owner of 4 netbooks the EEE PC 701,900HA,904HA and the HP-MINI-2133 all are great NOTEBOOKS. i think people are mis-gradeing the abilty of these little notebooks the 701 only has 4 gig of storage space and i am running windows xp and openoffice it does eveything that my 9400 dell does which has a 80 gig drive and 17 inch lcd.

Sameer Verma

December 12, 2008 2:00 PM

Anyone ever remember Palm's Foleo when paying homage to the netbook market?


December 13, 2008 3:39 PM

I like the idea and concept of netbooks. They definitely have the ability to shake up the industry.

But, for me personally, I still prefer the larger screen and keyboard of a "normal" notebook. I use my notebook too much to be restricted to such a small screen and keyboard. But, in fairness, I am yet to give a netbook a real try.

So for now I'm writing this on my new MacBook.


December 13, 2008 5:36 PM

Reading this on an Acer One that I bought yesterday at Costco. All in all it is great for what it does. Its $100 cheaper than the HP mentioned in the comments. Still like the Mac Air, but the size and price of this is hard to beat.
A couple desires: Linux. Windows XP is better than Vista, but its still Windows. Also, would like SSD.


December 13, 2008 7:52 PM

The article does not mention that hardware makers had this mini notebook idea years before. What is really happening is democratization of hardware and software. Prices are dropping and no longer do MS and it's partners control the upgrade market. Many people aren't willing to keep paying more just for the fastest, latest & greatest. Netbooks are about freedom in so many ways. Instant boot cloud computing on the go with no required Microsoft tax.


December 13, 2008 7:58 PM

I have an MSi Wind that the author mentioned and it's awesome. 120GB hard drive, 1GB RAM and a 1.6 GHz Atom. Streams video and audio seamlessly and has a WiFi card equal in strength and performance to the one in my gaming PC. It is super durable (made from what feels like poly carbon plastic or something) and plenty speedy. Running XP and Office 2007 apps without a hitch. It's by no means as fast as my dual core gaming PC with 4GB RAM, but more than sufficient for 90% of the worlds computing needs. Oh yea...and it's the size of a paperback book!


December 16, 2008 6:11 AM

The category has evolved over the past year and some and will continue to. I have a Dell Mini 9 that I bought for the small footprint, the all solid state/no moving parts design (not even a fan), and Ubuntu Linux. It's fast and the screen is great in spite of the clear finish - maybe because it's smaller, reflections have not been a negative factor in multiple environments including outdoors or at the office.

That sounds good, right? But even Dell has now added a larger version of the Mini to its lineup. Other companies are pushing netbooks with conventional HDDs and fans for the processor like a standard laptop. To me that's the wrong approach, but I'm only one consumer. Companies will continue to fiddle with approaches and feature mixes to see what will fly best. Look for more developments!

In my opinion no one has it just right yet, though obviously I think the Mini 9 comes close (it needs more battery life and the keyboard, though better than most, could still use some tweaking.) Point is, to remember what they are for: not heavy literary production or CAD, but a real computer you can use anywhere without lugging a ton of fragile gear.

I was in Panera the other day and found myself looking around at the other laptop users, tapping away at their huge-looking (to me) machines. Suddenly they looked slightly ridiculous! Netbooks aren't for eveyone or every use, but they're the best for what they do.

By the way, if you consider a netbook, don't be afraid of a Linux distribution like Ubuntu. It's ideal for this application. I would argue that putting Windows on a machine like mine actually detracts from its capabilities.

Sachin Balagopalan

December 17, 2008 9:24 PM

2009 will be the year of the NetBook ...

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