Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Netbooks

March 2009

By Mike Gould

Less is more, bigger isn't necessarily better, and boy, is my arm tired from lugging around this 17-inch laptop. I need a netbook.

Well, I would if I got out of the house once in a while and onto an airplane. I use my 17-inch Mac PowerBook G4 mainly as an adjunct to my photography business, giving my clients an instant view of the photos I am making for them. A road warrior I'm not, but if you are, you should look into getting a netbook.

Net Gain
A netbook, also called a subnotebook, is a miniature laptop computer, with a screen in the 7- to 10-inch range. As the cost of a laptop is largely dependent on the size of the display, a small laptop is a cheap laptop. But giving up visual landscape does not mean you have to skimp on other features: most netbooks sport USB ports, Bluetooth, WiFi capabilities, speakers, and some even have webcams built in. All for a price range of $300 to $600, a tenth of what you might spend on a full-size jobbie. And having a small display means you don't need as much battery power to light it up, so ASUS is now touting their netbooks as having "all day power".

A 17-inch Mac laptop like mine (which I call "LunchTray", as that's about the size of it) currently retails for around $2800 - good for maximum display, bad for travel. When I put the LunchTray in its hard-shell aluminum case, which is packed with power supply, cabling, and blank CDs, it weighs in at a shoulder-straining 12 pounds. Haul that around all day and it's Ibuprofin City for you.

It all started in late 2007 with the introduction of the ASUS EEE PC. At $245, you got a 2G solid-state hard drive (a chip instead of a spinning disk), 256M of RAM, and the Linux operating system. Part of the cheapness is explained with Linux; if you don't have to pay Microsoft for a Windows license, you save money. And Linux is very popular with the techie crowd, not so much with the everyday user. With Linux you can surf the web, do your email, and write documents with an open-source suite of software called OpenOffice.

OK, OK, glossary time for the non-geeks out there (i.e., most of you). Working backwards:

OpenOffice: a free suite of applications that enable you to do word processing, spreadsheets, and generally anything else you do in Microsoft Office. Office consists of Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, etc.. Well, there's no exact counterpart for Outlook because Outlook requires an Exchange server that doesn't play well with non-Microsoft software. But you get the idea.

Open-source: software that is created and maintained by a community of unpaid volunteers, and is thus available for free. Examples include the above OpenOffice, operating systems like Linux, and the FireFox web browser.

Linux: an operating system, much like Macintosh OSX and Windows, which can run applications on any computer. Yes, any computer: Mac, Dell, you name it, Linux runs on it. There is a rabid community of Linux users and developers out there, and you can expect Windows to continue to decline in popularity as more folks switch to Linux and Macintosh. Well, sorta - the decline is there but it is pretty slow going at the moment. Expect the decline to continue if Windows 7 works as well as Vista did, but I digress.

What all the above means is that the growing trend is towards putting computers in the hands of as much of the world's population as possible. ASUS has a marketing drive called "World Ahead", which involves putting everybody on the planet online. And this includes the poorest nations as well; hence cheap laptops.

There is another initiative out there called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). This is a program started by MIT's Nicholas Negroponte. The idea is to make computers so cheap that any child in any village can have one. A computer-enabled child is an empowered one, so the aim is to increase participation in the worldwide online community while increasing learning opportunities for poor children.

From the OLPC mission statement:

To create educational opportunities for the world's poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning.

Back to Business
So that's the trend: smaller, cheaper, running free software. But what if you don't want to move outside your Windows (or Mac) comfort zone? Not to worry, you can now buy an ASUS running Windows XP. Rumor has it that ASUS is in talks with Microsoft to provide a model optimized for Windows 7.

And ASUS is not the only player out there; other companies have hopped on the miniature bandwagon and are producing netbooks. HP has the Mini-Note, which runs Windows or Linux, and is more expensive, starting in the $500 range.

The Acer Aspire One is available with Linux at $329, while the Windows XP version is only $20 more. As with any laptop, more money gets you more RAM and a bigger drive.

The MSI Wind mimics most of the features of the high-end ASUS, and comes with a more complete keyboard.

There are more models announced from the usual suspects: Lenovo, Dell, and others have models coming out this year. In fact everybody is jumping on this except Apple.

So Where's the Apple Netbook?
Much to my chagrin, Apple is staying out of this for the moment. I can do most of what I need to do with my iPhone, but a bigger screen would be a big plus for me, even if only 10 inches. Apple has repeatedly said it doesn't compete in the low-price arena, but is "studying the issue". Well, they also said they wouldn't do a smartphone, and we know how that worked out.

Asus EEE models compared:
http://event.asus.com/eeepc/comparison/eeepc_comparison.htm OLPC:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_Laptop_per_Child

Mike Gould, is a mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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