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1/2/2009
04:35 PM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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The Trouble With Netbooks

Rumor has it that Google would like to see its Android operating system powering more than mere mobile phones.

Rumor has it that Google would like to see its Android operating system powering more than mere mobile phones.VentureBeat and others claim that Google is positioning Android as an operating system for netbooks, the curious category of device that's somewhere between an underpowered laptop and an obese mobile phone.

That would certainly be consistent with Google's philosophy that increased Internet usage benefits the company. But Google won't say if it has plans for Android-powered netbooks.

"Google collaborated with members of the Open Handset Alliance, which includes hardware manufacturers, semiconductor companies, software companies, carriers, and commercialization partners, to make Android available as open source," a Google spokesperson said via e-mail. "This has freed the platform to be used as the industry sees fit, without restriction. We believe the platform can and will be used in wireless and other embedded devices, and we encourage the community to use it in other applications. We have nothing to announce at this time, and we are not in a position to comment on the activities of other OHA members." Even so, I find the growing popularity of Net-centric devices troubling because they have the potential to disempower the user.

Netbooks, of course, are less powerful from a processor standpoint than notebooks. They're not intended for computationally intensive tasks like high-end gaming, professional content creation, or scientific number crunching.

But their strength -- lightweight computing like e-mail access, Web browsing, and online applications -- threatens to further weaken the ability of users to process and control their own data. By emphasizing the cloud computing model, netbooks push users toward dependence on online service providers, a relationship inevitably more constrained than the personal computing model.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, provided local computing and content creation remains an option. While it sounds paranoid to suggest that local computing power would ever disappear, there are plenty of powerful media companies that would be happy to see consumers with less access to the computational brute force required to crack digital locks, to the ability to install ad-blocking software, or to the local storage that enables the accumulation of massive content libraries.

For many, the cloud represents an appealing deal, thanks to the insecurity of desktop operating systems and the maintenance burden that comes with owning desktop and portable computers. While netbooks aren't yet substantially different, many in the industry see them as a way to bring the mobile phone subsidy model to computers. In that vision of the future, users would have less control but would be freed from many of the security and maintenance issues.

Apple has proven the appeal of the managed computing experience with its iPhone and iTunes Store ecosystem. There's money to be made when you're a gatekeeper. That's why Google has followed suit with its Android Market, and the BlackBerry will get a store of its own eventually.

The question is whether netbooks will retain their computing heritage or become more like phones, more restrictive.

As a Linux-based system, Android at least is open, and it may be premature to worry that a more locked-down computing environment is inevitable. Indeed, it would be fair to say that open source software stands to benefit from a central organizational force like Google, if the company can provide a more user-friendly experience.

Netbooks are becoming more popular, with third-quarter sales increasing by 160% over second-quarter sales, according to NPD's DisplaySearch. Hopefully, that popularity won't marginalize higher-horsepower computers and their many uses.

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