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Thoughts on netbooks…from 2008

I was searching for a picture of the famous National Lampoon cover from its January 1973 issue – the one that says “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.” When I searched for the picture, one of the top results was a Flickr share by Dave Winer. This happens to be a picture that Winer used in a December 2008 article about netbooks. With the passage of time, it’s interesting to see what Winer thought of netbooks back in those days.

And in those days, Winer was a huge proponent of netbooks, provided that they met certain criteria. Winer is of course an advocate of open systems, and some of his criteria related to this – user choice of what software to run, the ability of the user to replace the battery, and “competition.”

For those of us who forget exactly when particular things happened, Winer’s 2008 post was written over a year before I mentioned the unannounced iSlate product which ended up with a different name. This device failed most if not all of Winer’s criteria listed above, but in the process succeeded in wiping the shine off of the netbook market.

It would be nearly two years before I would buy my own netbook, a computer that I still use today (although that 1 GB RAM limitation is becoming harder and harder to live with). Let’s compare my 2010 purchase with Winer’s 2008 criteria.

Some of the items that Winer listed were key selling points for netbooks, and for my purchase in particular. Small size (Winer didn’t explicitly mention low weight, but that’s a related benefit), low price, and long battery life were all key selling factors. The aforementioned open/competition features were also important – in 2010, I had a number of netbooks from which to choose. Of the technical specs that Winer listed, the most important to me was built-in wifi.

Winer’s ninth and final item needs to be understood in the context of 2008 – “Windows XP.” This was during the time when Microsoft users could choose between Windows XP and Windows Vista, and many were opting for the older model. By 2010, I was at a point where I didn’t want to buy a netbook until it had Windows 7 pre-installed. As it turns out, this was a limtied version of the OS, but the limitations haven’t really affected my use of the netbook, and they of course contributed to the low cost of the device.

OK, maybe the limitations have affected my use of the netbook. By November 2011, developers weren’t willing to design sites that took the netbooks’ limitations into account. Here is part of what Jason Suss said on the topic at the time:

My point is that the direction of design / development shouldn’t be dictated by a user base who have chosen to provide themselves with a limited computing experience. Netbook hardware (processing power, graphics, etc) is intentionally generations behind in order to hold the line on costs….

I just believe that an unfortunate side effect of the netbook fad has been to similarly cheapen the web experience that devs like me are asked to build.

This is something that Winer didn’t take into account in his 2008 post. While he didn’t explicitly say that netbooks should have limited memory, the low cost pretty much guarantees that they won’t be memory powerhouses. And the small size obviously dictates a small screen size. This means that to properly support netbooks, developers would need to take these limitations into account.

If everybody and their mothers (literally) were using the platform, then developers would have an incentive to do so. (But even then, developers were not willing to develop for Internet Explorer 6 even though a sizable portion of the enterprise market still used that generation of the browser.)

But by the time Jason Suss wrote his comments in 2011, the writing was on the (physical) wall for netbooks. Asus estimated that its tablet sales would increase, and its netbook sales would decline. In essence, the tablet has become today’s version of the netbook. “Open” tablets are available that meet most if not all of Winer’s criteria, some tablets have very attractive price points, and the forthcoming Windows 8 provides an operating system that has been designed for tablets.

And I find myself in a similar situation to where I was in 2010 – I want to upgrade my computer, but I’m not doing anything until Microsoft’s new operating system comes out.

As a lover of keyboards, I doubt I’ll go the tablet route (Microsoft’s new Surface will probably be out of my price range). But I may surprise myself.

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