Will Netbooks take over the world?

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Yes, this is another ‘The Desktop Is Dying’ article, but with a little bit of waffling about netbooks and smartphones thrown in for good measure.

As many have been suggesting for the past 3-4 years, the era of dominance of the desktop computer is over. In Q3 of 2008, worldwide laptop sales finally surpassed those of their desktop brethren, something which market research firm iSuppli hadn’t predicted as occurring until 2011. So not only are machines getting smaller, they are getting smaller more quickly than we expected. Even as recently as 2002 this shift wouldn’t really have been possible. Portable machines were vastly underpowered, short on battery life, or hugely expensive – and often all three at once. But then Intel introduced the Centrino platform and it was the beginning of relatively cheap, reasonable performance for mobile computing.

Now the headlines in the IT press are predicting the death of the notebook and its rapid replacement by netbooks, smartbooks, and even smartphones. But can ever smaller machines keep continually replacing the ones we use? Long term the answer is obviously yes; as early as 1999 we will all be wearing fingernail computers and living on the moon, but in the short term it is more difficult to say.

The majority of computer users are split into two groups (actually I’m sure you could split them up a whole bunch of ways, but two will do for now), the university/business users and the casual/Facebook users. The serious users I’m talking about aren’t the geeks. Most of the serious users know no more about the technical aspects of computing than most of the thirteen year old girls using Facebook. They are the people word-processing essays or legal letters, making financial spreadsheets and that kind of thing. The other group mainly uses IM software, browses a few websites and maybe does some very simple photo editing, ie drawing silly beards or glasses on pictures of their friends.

These casual users probably could get away with migrating to a netbook and many might be happy with just an iPhone, but these aren’t the entirety of the PC market. Three hundred million or so people use Facebook and a good proportion of those probably do little else, but school and business also remain quite popular activities in this day and age.

Netbooks can’t replace laptops for the majority of computer users right now, because it is difficult to complete a lot of serious work on such a small machine. Just as the video editing crowd is not going to ditch their huge towers and 30” displays for a laptop, people working for hours on their business accounts or university coursework would struggle on a 9” screen.

It is largely for this reason that so many netbooks are being returned to their manufacturers. Earlier this year during a Q&A session, Intel’s marketing chief Sean Maloney admitted that some OEMs were having return rates of up to 30 percent. Maloney himself made a big deal about the power of the machines and the fact that many can’t play back HD video, but he misses the point.

Many users can barely tell the difference between SD and HD. While YouTube might be a killer application for the masses, streamed HD isn’t, especially if the user can’t even recognize it. Netbooks are still a little underpowered for the tasks of casual users, but not greatly so. The better equipped ones will run a few tabbed webpages, MSN chat, and iTunes acceptably. Switching between tasks might be a little laggy but it is usable.

They will also run most of the productivity software which the students and business types need; in fact my eeePC 1005HA runs Microsoft Office 2007 flawlessly. The main problem is the size; the things are too small to efficiently carry out a lot of computing tasks in the same way in which you could on a laptop or desktop.

Netbooks are only going to get more powerful, and it can’t be too long before they reach the performance levels of the C2D generation of desktop PCs, ie more than enough power for almost all casual/student/business users applications. But increased computing power isn’t going to solve the problems with the interface, at least not directly. For the netbook (and any smaller devices) to really take over is going to require a significant revolution in the way the user interacts with the machine.

There are some possibilities in the pipeline; eye tracking software might make for more efficient use of smaller screens, but recent research suggests that it requires significant redesign of the GUI and even web content to be fully effective. Projection glasses could do away with screens completely, but there are unresolved issues with eyestrain and nausea.  Most users would probably be reluctant to wear such a device in public unless it closely resembled ordinary spectacles, something which would drive up costs.

Gesture based interfaces are also an active area of development. Pattie Maes of MIT’s Media Lab recently demonstrated Sixth Sense, which is just such a system. It consists of a camera to capture gestures and a micro projector which allows the use of more or less any surface as a display. While this is perhaps the most elegant solution which is anywhere near developed enough to find mass adoption, at this point it is so very different from what most computer users are accustomed to that it would face huge challenges in the market. Put quite simply, if a significant proportion of users found the jump from Windows XP to Vista too challenging, then something like Sixth Sense would have to be almost perfectly polished and expertly marketed.

The challenge which will significantly delay netbooks and their smaller brethren from becoming the primary computing device for most users is the interface. Being able to perform the full gamut of productivity and educational work on such a machine is going to require revolution rather than evolution. Given the risks and challenges, as well as the mindset of the two biggest players (Microsoft and Apple), this is unlikely to happen within the next five years at least. Netbooks and Smartphones may still become ubiquitous as ‘yet another cool gadget’ which every fashion conscious consumer MUST own, but they will not replace laptops and desktops until this problem is solved.

Hyperlogik on OCForums

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