Bombastic Bunny

A blog about how things suck and how a smart person like me could fix them.

Netbooks are a Stupid Compromise, and Should Be Bigger.

31st of March, 2009

And by bigger I mean with 13” screens and regular sized keyboards.

Here is my mockup.

A mockup of a 13 inch netbook, fashioned after a MacBook Air

But first, let me digress into a history of netbooks and how it all happened. We need to understand this to figure out how, in a world of cheap LCDs, we ended up with a form factor so ridiculous.

The netbook market

Why are netbooks, anyway? It seems to me that what happened was the following:

The OLPC XO, which I got to play with solely on account of my friend Lindsay having jawsome connections.
  1. OLPC wanted to save hunger by developing a toy computer with an emphasis on education
  2. The heartless Taiwanese did it cheaper and better with less emphasis on education (no hand-cranks, no language-agnostic OS, etc), and so the first world got the Eee
  3. The Eee sold well (because it was like $299) and a whole bunch of other companies (Acer, MSI, HP, Dell) got in on it, guided by Intel’s interest in Atom-powered 7-10” laptops
  4. The netbook manufacturers are now gradually trying to push the price points up with deluxe netbooks but can’t divorce themselves from the small form factor. This is due to Intel subsidies on Atom prices for devices with screens smaller than 10.2”, and, in my opinion, a desire to protect their bread-and-butter $700-1200 regular laptops which bring more revenue to their companies.

What a sad state of affairs! So all these people who want cheap low-end “companion” computers are stuck with compromised screens and keyboards due to the corporate orientation of Intel and Acer? How stupid.

The thing is, nobody needs to be buying an Aspire One. The form factor sucks. It is useful for a small number of people, but generally, the size of a netbook is not an issue to most people. The important points are:

Netbooks would not have a market if not for their price. Their portability (note, not just the length and width) is a nice bonus, but we already saw with the Windows CE Handheld PC Pro platform, the Sony Picturebook, and now the Vaio P that the market for small computers is enthusiastic and very small.

What are the seemingly unimportant points to a netbook purchaser?

These are what the market has decided people can live without. I ordered them in terms of what I believe to be most important to least important, in terms of general usability. For the markets I see netbooks appealing to — students, housewives, people who want a more portable companion to their real computer — these things would all be nice, but are not crucial.

So what?

Well, Netbooks could putter along forever. They are kind of fucking up the laptop market and ruining new college kids’ lives when their parents figure “what’s the difference” and buy them a $299 Dell Mini instead of a $1299 Inspiron, but hey, they’re not hurting anyone and they’re certainly selling.

But they suck! Who wants a compromised baby screen! Who wants a shitty keyboard which will likely give you RSI! Who wants 1024x800 resolutions and horizontal scrollbars and an inability to multitask? I would wager most people would like to fix this. Nobody actually has a bag that’s only 10 by 7 inches. Nobody actually cares about fitting a computer in a pocket. Maybe someone who flies economy a lot. But not many people at all.

What people really want is this:

An Apple MacBook Air

Big screen, big keyboard, and just as portable — the size of a sheet of paper, fits in any bag, under 3 pounds.

But $1799 is like lol wut. It’s a companion device, not a workstation — so it can’t cost more than $600. Oh, but how appealing!

My proposal for a new kind of netbook

My suggestion, as you saw above, is basically an Air if you made it out of plastic (unibody aluminium is expensive), changed the expensive low wattage C2D for an Atom, trimmed off the bezel and sold it for $399.

It would be focused on being portable (as light as possible, as thin as possible) without giving you a crappy display. The performance concession of an Atom CPU is not a big deal anymore, and will only get better once Windows 7 and Snow Leopard OSX86 comes around. (Of course, don’t get carried away, I realise OSX86 is illegal — but for this computer to be truly ideal, it should be surreptitiously tested with OSX86 before it is released.) It should fit into a bag easily and be barely any larger than a folder or exercise book.

Here’s some more ideas:

A mockup of the side of this prospective netbook, and its power adaptor.

There’s my idea for a power adaptor. These suck in most implementations too — not easily able to be put into a bag. This one should be the size of a small paperback or deck of cards. Super slim, and a retractable cord for easy cable management. And a USB port just for convenience. Dell’s Adamo charger is similar in thickness to the thin laptop it accompanies, so this could be done.

It could have bluetooth and a webcam but these are not very important. 3G could be implemented later, whatever. And just to throw out another idea, it should be bundled with a silicon casing (like an iSkin) that protects it from drops and scratches at the expense of another few millimeters of thickness. Durability is wonderful.

Some software ideas

There’s not too much you can do when developing a laptop like this — Microsoft decide how the OS will work and that’s about it. However, there are some hardware assisted features that’d be neat:

Nothing groundbreaking, but these would be nice to have. I find them more interesting features than shitty instant-on OSes and more weird hardware buttons.

Wait what, $399?

Well, I don’t know how much it really costs to make these things, but I looked at the MSI Wind and made some assumptions and I think it’d be reasonable, though there would be limited margins. The business model for this laptop would be designed for a company like Asus or MSI who do not have a big market of “real laptops” they are worried about killing (Dell and HP do!) Essentially, the company should declare “We will sell this netbook, take over the market for student computers and destroy the netbook market, and if the margin is $20 a unit we’ll make it up in volume.” Of course, it if was priced at $499, you could make tons more.

My rationale for the pricing: you can buy an MSI Wind with Linux for $300. It is a nice little 1.6ghz Atom netbook with a 10” screen, 120gb HD and 1gb RAM. If we take that price and add $20 for a thinner battery with better technology, $40 for a 13” LCD upgrade and $30 for a Windows license, we end up with $400. I assume the price of an 8gb SSD or 120gb 2.5” HD is similar to a 60gb 1.8” drive, and if it’s not you could reduce the screen to 12” or remove the webcam or something.

In other words, it’s plausible to sell for $399 and if it’s not, $499. Either would be disruptive and awesome but I think to kill the “standard netbook” market you need to get under the $400 mark.

Will it happen?

Unlikely. MSI or Acer or Gigabyte or any of these shit Taiwanese companies would have to have a lot of balls to do it. It’d change things, and potentially reduce the margins of an already ridiculously low-profit business. But that’s where these guys excel. The problem is that this sort of product can’t come around without a vision and a determined effort to make it happen. Intel supplied it for the small-screen netbooks, but as doing a 13” one would irritate Intel and every other OEM, nobody else will help a company who makes this product.

But how good would it be for everybody? Cheap, “proper”, ultraportable laptops for everybody. With no compromises on the things that matter.

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