Why Netbooks Rule the Mobile Device Space

When I observe a business person carrying an Apple laptop, I don't see an elegant mobile device. I see corporate waste -- like first-class airline tickets, Apple laptops are vastly overpriced. And, just like first-class tickets, they offer no real benefits compared to cheaper options -- they are designed mainly to make the people holding them feel good about themselves.

The fact is that if you're a mobile worker and you need a handheld computer to access the mobile Internet and run mobile applications, smart business principles demand that you sport nothing more glamorous than a netbook. These low-cost, super-portable, compact laptops took the laptop market by storm in recession-hit 2009. Netbook sales more than doubled year-on-year to account for more than 20 percent of the total laptop market.

Consumers love them, and enterprises should too. That's because netbooks offer most of the ultra-portability associated with smartphones combined with the superior design and range of applications offered by a conventional laptop - all at a bargain basement price.

But if you take a look at a few tech magazines and Web sites, and you'll quickly get the impression that the days of the netbook are numbered. So why are people predicting that the market for networks will soon evaporate?

Argument 1: A netbook is too small of a mobile device for conducting serious work

This is nonsense. Ever sat on an airplane in coach for a three-hour flight? I'll bet you have, and I'll bet it wasn't such a terrible ordeal. It's nicer and more relaxing to ride up front, certainly, but there's not that much wrong with sitting in the cheap seats. When you add the fact that economy class passengers arrive at the same destination at the same time for a fraction of the cost, it's not surprising that business and first class passengers are in the minority.

That's relevant because netbooks are the $200 economy class tickets of the mobile computing world, doing the same job as $800 business class laptops -- and the $1700 Macs up in front of the curtain -- at a fraction of the cost. A netbook may not be as comfy to use as a larger, more expensive laptop with a full-sized keyboard and a larger screen , and after a long stint on one you may not be as fresh and ready for business as you would be if you'd been working on a MacBook Air. But the difference isn't that great: no one feels good after three hours hunched in front of any portable computer of any brand or size -- even an Apple Mac.

Conclusion: Economy class airline tickets aren't going to go away, so why should netbooks?

Argument 2: Netbooks aren't powerful enough for anything more than e-mail and light Web browsing

There's a fatal flaw in this argument: it's just wrong. The truth is that the Atom processor at the heart of every netbook is a deceptively powerful beast. To prevent the cannibalization of higher margin sales, Intel and Microsoft imposed an artificial 1GB limit on the amount of RAM Atom-powered machines can include, which to me is a pretty good indication that the processor is more powerful than they'd have you believe.

It's certainly more than adequate for most mobile business needs - as long as you don't plan on running any virtual machines or 3D rendering programs. It might well struggle with high-end games or video encoding as well, but should you really be playing on your business laptop anyway?

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and this column has been entirely written on an original Acer Aspire One netbook with an 8.9-inch screen, which cost a little over $230. It's set to boot a choice of three operating systems, and its Atom processor is easily powerful enough to run Windows 7 (with the full Windows Aero GUI), Ubuntu Karmic Koala (at a blistering pace) or Windows Server 2008 (which is basically a variant of Vista.) The Aspire One is also capable of being turned into a Hackintosh running Apple's OS X, but it's not for the faint-hearted and since it breaks Apple's licensing terms you wouldn't expect me to tell you if I'd tried it, now would you?

More important than the OS is the apps a portable device can run, and a netbook such as the Aspire One is quite capable of running a range or run-of-the mill business applications. These include Word, Excel, Outlook, Skype, and a VPN client simultaneously, along with Firefox, Chrome or Internet Explorer to browse the Web or access cloud-based applications.

Conclusion: Most work you throw at an Atom won't tax it at all.

All of this leads me to suspect that most people dissing netbooks are either laptop makers struggling to sell more expensive models, or users worried that the next portable computer they are issued by the IT department won't be powerful enough to run Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

Netbooks are affordable, small and light enough to put in your jacket pocket, and powerful enough to get the job done: pretty much the perfect mobile computer. As the saying goes: "What's not to love?"


mobile, Apple, netbook, mobile applications, mobile device