Netbooks: A Transitional Technology

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On June 11, 2009

netboook-smartphone-01.pngWe here at EdTech Enterprises have recently been examining the possibility of using a “netbook” for some applications instead of heavier and more bulky standard laptop or tablet PCs.

However, I recently came across a couple of good articles that look at some of advantages and disadvantages of netbooks in comparison to other technologies.

Jeff Medcalf at the Eternity Road blog investigates whether netbooks are actually useful. He lays out his criteria in terms of the use cases and function points of the most widely used technology. Basically, each technology needs to match up what the technology can actually do (its function points) against what people actually want or need to do (use cases). We do this all the time in EdTech with faculty. In many instances we try to find out what an instructor wants to do and then try to find the appropriate technology to match that need.

Jeff examines desktops, laptops, netbooks, and smartphones and compares
how well each technology fulfills a user’s need to perform certain
tasks, such as voice communication, document creation, record keeping,
entertainment, and so forth. Jeff concludes that desktops and laptops
are “functionally identical for the vast majority of users.” The
primary advantage a laptop has over a desktop is portability while a
desktop often offer lower cost for the same amount of power.
Smartphones have certain advantages that desktops and laptops simply do
not offer yet (mainly high portability and superior voice
communication). Netbooks simply cannot do everything that a
desktop/laptop can do and they also can’t do everything that a
smartphone can do. In essence,

A netbook serves
essentially no purpose that is not served by one of the other devices
you must have in any case [i.e. a desktop/laptop or a smartphone —
ed.]. It is an extra, a luxury.

In his argument, Jeff links to a more colorful article by Joey Devilla
that tries to draw an analogy between smartphones/netbooks and apple
pies in the fast food industry. Specifically, he describes the
competition in apple pies between “Monarch Burger” [MB] (which has a
rather creepy mute monarch for its mascot) and “Jester Burger” [JB]
(which has an almost equally creepy clown in a brightly colored
jumpsuit as its mascot).

MB tried selling pies that looked
like homemade slices of apple pie, but didn’t really taste like one.
Having sampled them in the past, I would tend to agree that it was
never the best pie out there. However, MB was trying to set up the
expectations in customers’ minds that they were eating real homemade
apple pie, even when they weren’t.

In a similar fashion, a netbook is designed to mimic a laptop’s form
and function, even though it is not quite as powerful or as capable as
a true laptop. It also can’t quite match the portability and features
of a good smartphone, even though it may have some features that a
smartphone doesn’t have.

Joey extends the netbook analogy to include network computers, also known as “thin clients” that have a rudimentary operating system, but the bulk of the work of the machine is done behind the scenes on servers located elsewhere. EdTech is also researching the viability of using a thin client for certain applications, such as cloud computing. This would be an attempt to have certain software packages available in a virtual desktop environment, rather than physically located in specific CLCs on campus, but I digress.

Network computing, according to Joey, was an attempt to bridge the gap between one type of computing application and more recent computing capabilities. It never really caught on because web-based applications became available, thus software applications can truly live “online” in a virtualized world instead of being accessed through specific physical portals, which is what thin clients were designed to do.

The Jester Burger apple pie, in contrast with the Monarch Burger’s, was a deep-fried pocket of pie crust filled with apple pie filling, similar to a “Hot Pocket”, only much, much tastier. Because it was designed for people to eat with their hands, the “on-the-go” crowd found it much more appealing to order one of these from a fast-food joint instead of the “homemade” style of apple pie that required a fork. In other words,

The Jester Burger pie fills a need without pretending to be something it’s not, and I think smartphones to the same thing.

Smartphones are extremely portable, integrate several different devices (mp3 player, digital camera, phone, email, pager, and much, much more) into a single unit, and are generally quite affordable. In addition, it is even possible to connect from a smartphone to a desktop (one of our technical support analysts can remote desktop to the machines he supports from anywhere–it’s pretty neat), thus making the applications on your desktop available from anywhere you need to be.

Joey concludes that when people buy a smartphone, they are essentially buying their primary phone that they will use for just about anything they can. When people buy a netbook, they are buying a secondary machine to supplement their primary machine for matters of convenience. For instance, I primarily use a desktop machine, but I often take a tablet PC with me to meetings or other places on campus because it is much more portable and can link to my desktop machine if I need it to.

One of the questions we have to face here in EdTech is how to evaluate technologies such as netbooks. I think both Jeff and Joey have convinced me that netbooks are, in fact, a transitory technology that will quickly be replaced by smarter, more powerful, and more portable technologies.

UPDATE: Several commenters to Joey’s article rave about the great experiences of using netbooks, which indicates there is a niche market. However, they seemed to miss the whole point of Joey’s article (and by extension, Jeff’s) that while netbooks may be a great tool NOW, there is a reasonable expectation that whatever niche they currently fill will be replaced by newer and improved smartphones with better input technology, or lighter, more powerful laptops that are still large enough to be used more comfortably than many netbooks and are equipped to handle the standard tools and applications found in current desktops and laptops (many netbooks are not quite capable of handling a Windows or Mac-based operating system, so run some version of Linux instead). The price point for laptops and smartphones can also be expected to drop over time, just as every other technology has become cheaper and more affordable. Netbooks are cheap, but the manufacturers of netbooks sometimes sell them at a loss because they supplement a user’s needs, rather than become the user’s primary need–just like some auto manufacturers sell hybrid vehicles at a loss due to the fact that they also rely on other customers buying larger, more powerful vehicles to serve those customers’ primary transportation needs.

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On June 11, 2009. Posted in New Technology, Technology Evaluation