At the same time, todays netbooks arent perfect. Many suffer cramped keyboards and track pads; neither is fun to use during marathon typing sessions. Some netbooks are more comfortable than others, but nearly all sport keys that are less than full size. Theres also the lack of screen real estateanyone coming from a 22-inch widescreen LCD will struggle to fit whatever theyre doing on a netbooks tiny 8.9-inch or 10-inch, limited resolution panel.
Since netbooks are such small, inexpensive devices, they also include CPUs, memory, and (most significantly) hard disks several generations behind the ones in regular notebooks. Intel is combating this to some extent with its new Atom processor, which is designed with netbooks in mind. With solid-state disk prices firmly affixed to the stratosphere, these concerns wont be allayed any time soon.
But fixing the above issues isnt really the answer. Instead, theyre part and parcel of what makes a netbook. Increase the screen and keyboard size, and add in a more powerful CPU, and you no longer have a netbookyou have a laptop. And with full-blown, 15.4-inch notebooks starting in the $500 range this holiday season, theres no need for netbooks to go in that direction.
Even so, the potential is there for netbooks to become mainstream devices. Heres what really needs to happen:
The boot sequence needs to disappear. This has long been a dream of notebook vendors, but its particularly important here. Today, netbooks take as long or even longer than regular, more powerful notebooks to boot up. Incorporating a real instant-on feature wouldnt mean a return to the incompatible Newton and Psion days either: a clean install of Linux or Windows XP boots quite quickly without crapware clogging up the proceedings. It can be faster still with solid-state memory (see below).
Batteries need to last longer. Another holy grail, but one thats especially relevant to netbooks given their typical use cases: e-mail, a quick Web browsing section, and light document editing. Think about itif a cell phone can last for days at a time and sport a 500 MHz processor, a netbook should be able to do the same thing with an Atom processor and a much larger battery. Low-power modes, efficient green CPUs, solid-state storage, and LED displays are all means to this end.
Persistent WWAN connectivity. By definition, netbooks work while connected to the Internet. If you cant find a hot spot, and youre not paying for a $60/month cellular broadband card, your netbook becomes a doorstop. Its clear we wont have persistent Wi-Fi even in major cities for some time to come, much less rural areas.
Touchscreen LCD. I vacillated on including this one in the list. The last thing we need is another screwball mobile OS or failed attempt at a middle device thats difficult to synchronize with real PCs. A touchscreen netbook would still have to be a Windows XP or Linux machine with a QWERTY keyboard through and through. But a touchscreen would make navigation easier; particularly as more folks acquaint themselves with the touch and two-finger-zoom idiom Apple made popular with the iPhone and iPod Touch.
Lower prices. Finally, netbooks need to stay in the $300 to $350 range. As various UMPCs demonstrated, few consumers would pay $800 or $1100 for a device thats almost impossible to type on, no matter how powerful it is. Its much easier to just bring along a regular laptop, even if it weighs more. But now that regular laptops are pushing down against the $500 price barrier, netbooks cant also cost $500, no matter how svelte they are. Its true that some buyers are prepared to pay a premium for a lightweight design, as the svelte MacBook Air and slick Toshiba Portégé line illustrates. But the mainstream netbook buyer certainly isnt.