The netbook craze happened almost by accident. While the deep-pocketed industry leaders, including Microsoft, Intel and a gaggle of Asian consumer electronics giants tried to sell Ultra Mobile PCs, it took ASUS, of all companies, to finally figure out what the public really wanted: A regular notebook, but really small and really cheap.
That was the first surprise. The second was that most buyers didn’t want the most advanced version of Windows, or the custom-UI variants of Linux, but instead preferred Windows XP, an OS that Microsoft has been trying to kill off.
The third surprise was that, despite the appeal and popularity of netbooks, the excitement of using one tends to wear off after a few weeks. The reasons are many, but include cramped screens and keyboards, and a large number of small usability annoyances.
Netbooks are big sellers. But many of those systems are now sitting on a shelf gathering dust.
I believe that netbooks are about to undergo another transformation, caused by yet another downgrade in software. This next generation of netbooks will run cell phone operating systems. And some will even be sold by carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile.
HP is looking at using Google’s Android platform, which is a Google-and-Internet centric cell phone OS that would be perfect for netbooks. It’s light and fast and focuses on what people really want to do with netbooks, which is surf the Web, do social networking and communicate via e-mail, chat and Twitter.
If Microsoft’s number-one partner HP is considering Google’s Android, you can bet the Asian hardware vendors with less loyalty to Microsoft, including ASUS, are working on similar projects.
I also believe that if Apple ships a netbook – which it could do this year – that device would have to run the iPhone OS. Possibilities include a large iPhone, or a tablet-clamshell convertible unit. Either way, it would be a multi-touch system and run applications from the iTunes App store.
Microsoft Windows Mobile has never been well suited to phones, and would be much better on a clamshell netbook device. Microsoft may not have the vision to make such a decision, however, and may let competitors run away with the netbook market. Still, I’d love to see Windows Mobile on netbooks.
Palm announced a netbook before anybody had heard the word “netbook.” Their Foleo product was recalled, and Palm went back to the drawing board with both the concept and their cell phone OS. Still, they demonstrated their intention to get into netbooks with Palm’s webOS operating system.
This will turn out to be a great thing for users, because netbooks need what cell phones operating systems already have:
• PC synchronization
• Low battery use
• Instant on
• Good performance with cheap processors
• Efficient use of small screens
• Mobile specific applications
These OS features will completely change the netbook-using experience. Those tiny netbook screens will seem enormous. Batter life will be amazing. The idea of synchronizing a netbook with a desktop PC would make them much easier, more appealing and significantly easier to use. And costs will come down even further than they already are.
In fact, such prices may come down all the way to zero. The cell phone model – giving away or heavily subsidizing cell phones in exchange for a two-year commitment on a wireless contract – will work great for netbooks. AT&T and other carriers have announced special divisions to look at such deals.
Just this week, the Swedish company LM Ericsson AB unveiled a line of netbook and laptop modems that would enable a carrier to remotely shut down and lock up the system if the user didn’t pay his mobile broadband bill. The user would be unable to boot the system. Once the bill is paid, all is forgiven and the system would work again.
You might not like the sound of that, but would you be willing to tolerate if the netbook hardware was free? If not, low-cost netbooks running cell phone software will be available without contracts as well.
The next big thing in tiny laptops will cell phone operating systems, cell phone applications and cell phone data plans. Like all big shifts in the netbook market, this one will surprise the experts, but thrill buyers.