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.
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.
Do any of todays netbooks come close to the above ideal? None of them have instant-on or touch screen LCDs, so strike those for now. Most new models, including the HP Mini 1000, the Acer Aspire One, and the Asus Eee PC 1000H, have the right price point, at least in a base configuration.
The HP Mini 1000 offers an internal WWAN option, while the Lenovo S10 includes an ExpressCard slot. Few models exhibit long battery life; most last in the three-hour range, which is the same as a regular notebook. One exception is the 6-cell battery in the Asus Eee PC 1000H, which is good for a stellar seven hours, and some Asus Eee PCs can exceed four hours as well.
Since I referenced Apple several times already, its natural to conclude that they should release a netbook of their own. But netbooks run counter to the Apple model, which is heavily dependent on locally installed software, a walled garden media ecosystems, and high-end, high-margin products that exude design finesse more than bargain prices. That doesnt mean they wont ever release one, but dont expect one next month.
(Besides, theyd rather sell you an existing iPod Touch or an iPhone.)
I give it 12 months before we see netbooks that begin to address the above issues in earnest. The easiest to tackle are the first twoworking out an instant-on disk image and squeezing extra battery life out of todays netbooks are within the realm of what technology is currently capable of.
Persistent WWAN connectivity is tougher due to how precious and expensive cellular broadband is. It would take some savvy on the order of Jobs and the AT&T/iPhone deal to break through the $60/month price barrier. WiMAX is one option here, since I presume Sprint and Clearwire are looking for an early 4G foothold in cities other than Baltimore.
The touchscreen LCD is the only idea I mentioned that Im not entirely sold on. Thats not because Im not sure if its a good idea. I just dont know if it can be done inexpensively enough, and perform well enough, given todays technology.
A really good trackpad and button combination would be a welcome consolation prize; its a sore spot on many of todays netbooks. Linux machines run well out of the box at the base price points$319 to $349but XP models tend to require a memory and/or CPU bump before they run well.
In short: keep netbooks in the $300 to $400 range, address the above issues, and watch them begin to cut into regular notebook sales in earnest.