Tech Follies: Laptop Batteries, Netbooks, and Investor Funny Money

A veteran industry analyst points out some of the follies in today's tech world.
When you see a battery benchmark on sales collateral or at point of purchase you generally see something called "MobileMark." Everyone in the industry knows this benchmark is wildly optimistic and that the actual battery life you'll get is often less than half what MobileMark suggests. This is because MobileMark measures battery life much like you might measure gas mileage if you started the car, put it in neutral, and coasted down a long hill.

Generally if you want to know how much battery life you will actually get out of a new notebook it is best to take the MobileMark number and cut it in half. In a car this would be like, on a Chevy instead of seeing 16 city and 22 highway you only saw 4.6 miles per gallon -- and you discover this when your car runs out of gas halfway to your destination in a little town we call Love Bubba Texas (where the gas in $140 a gallon, the temperature is 120 degrees, and water is $50 a glass). I'm pretty sure that would be my luck.

So the reality is you buy a notebook, it says 4 hours of battery life. But when you get on a plane figuring you have time for a movie and some work, 85% through the movie you get a battery warning and 95% the battery goes dead. You not only don't get any work done you have to wait until you get to your fricken hotel room to see the end of the damn movie. Not that this ever happens to me, mind you.

You'd figure at least this statistic would make sense because GHz and number of Cores doesn’t actually tell you what you can do either, because different processors, configurations, and components have a bigger impact on overall system speed than any one part does. Even with one part, the Atom, for instance, does less work at a given GHz than a Core 2 does.

So there is really only one metric that looks like you can rely on. And it is wildly inaccurate.

Acer Aspires to a Netbook that’s Really a Smartbook

At Computex this week Acer announced the Android Netbook, expected to be very inexpensive, always connected, and to provide, well, a Netbook like experience.

Currently most Netbooks run Windows XP and we've already seen large return rates from those that bought the lower volume Linux versions, suggesting that expectations on a Netbook aren't that different than they are with a Notebook. But even the Linux versions were inexpensive notebooks that could run Windows XP.

Now I'm not saying that the Acer product isn't interesting, nor that it can't succeed (well, eventually), but it isn't what they are calling it. This would be like selling a motorcycle and calling it a cheap sports car and it is inherently false advertising. What this is, is the biggest damn Smartphone that has ever been created. In effect it is a motorcycle with a sidecar, not a sports car.

This New Acer product is something the industry starting to call a Smartbook, not a Netbook; the reason is that it is basically closer to a large screen Smartphone than it is a Notebook computer.

This means it typically will be sold like a Smartphone, with a cell phone subsidy. And while it will likely cost under $200, initially it will have bundled with it two years of monthly charges (in the $40 to $70 range depending on service plan) and actual cost will be closer to $600 to $900. That's not bad, really, if you factor in you’re always connected. But kind of painful if you were thinking of this as a $200 cheap notebook, which is what a Netbook currently is.

Don't get me wrong, as we move to Cloud Computing this could be an incredible class of product. But that is well off into the future and this class of product, like a Smartphone, will always have advantages and disadvantages that separate it from what we now think of as a Netbook or Notebook computer. Just like a Motorcycle has advantages and disadvantages over a sports car (hint: you can avoid more things with a motorcycle, and survive hitting more things with a sports car).

In addition, the current version of Android isn't really designed for this class of product. Even Google apparently would like Acer and others to wait until a future version of their OS, due next year in initial form, is available. Google has been saying Android just isn't ready yet for this kind of product. So using the Motorcycle sidecar example, this would be like selling a product at a time when the motorcycle manufacturer is saying sidecars are not safe yet.

Sales Numbers that Look like Funny Money

So you see a report from a research house that says this vendor or that vendor is in the lead. Sales numbers look good so you invest in the company.

No one bothers to tell you the numbers didn't come from independent research (NPD is the exception as they measure actual sales and pull their information from stores) but from the vendor themselves. Nor do they actually represent what products were actually sold to end buyers but products that were shipped to distributors. You could have a situation where the numbers looked really good but the actual sales were horrible.

You could also have situations where the vendor reported wildly overstated numbers for extended periods of time and you wouldn't find out until the vendor went under due to lack of actual sales.

Every aspect of financial reporting is under a microscope, with huge accuracy and auditing requirements -- except these numbers, which aren't really understood by investors and often are very inaccurate.

It seems only a matter of time before someone who lost a ton of money in the stock market suddenly says: Wait a minute, I relied on those numbers and had I known they were unreliable I wouldn't have made the investment and lost my retirement fund. I figure finding a few people like this wouldn't be hard and presto we have a class and bingo off we go to class action money land.

Tags: Linux, Windows, Acer

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