Mobile
Commentary
4/3/2009
12:48 PM
Ed Hansberry
Ed Hansberry
Commentary
50%
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Desktop OS's, Not Mobile, To Rule Netbook Market

I've seen a lot of speculation and opinions recently that mobile operating systems like Android will take over the netbook market, pushing Windows aside. HP is already playing with Android on their netbooks. It has been tried before. I don't see that happening in the near or far future.

I've seen a lot of speculation and opinions recently that mobile operating systems like Android will take over the netbook market, pushing Windows aside. HP is already playing with Android on their netbooks. It has been tried before. I don't see that happening in the near or far future.There are some perceived advantages to running a mobile OS such as Windows Mobile, Android or the iPhone. First of all, they all have a tiny footprint compared to Linux and Windows XP, much less Windows 7 or Mac OSX, so small cheap SSD drives are more feasible. Mobile platforms generally run on ARM processors, and those are cheaper and less power hungry than even Intel's frugal Atom processor that dominates the netbook market. That power savings means you can have a cheaper and lighter battery. Finally, when it comes to Android, it is free.

This is a huge win for manufacturers. The problem is, no one will buy it. The first netbooks came with Linux, which is also free. The return rate was astonishingly high too. The average consumer looking for a computer knows how to use Windows and possibly OSX. I've used several flavors of Linux and, aside from there being so many flavors available as being a problem, none of them are as easy to use as Windows or OSX yet. People also figured out some of their favorite software wouldn't work on Linux. So back the netbooks went, in droves.

The same will happen with an Android powered machine. If John Q. Public wants a cheap netbook and plans on doing basic web surfing, listening to music and chatting, he may run into a few obstacles. Android can browse the web to be sure, but when you hit upon a site that has a Quicktime video or a Windows Media stream, that's going to be a problem. If he wants to load up iTunes to sync his iPod with, there is another problem. If his instant messaging client of choice is Windows Live Messenger, that's a third problem.

Now, before you jump on me with workarounds to some or all of these, remember that John Q. Public is the kind of guy that types "www.cnn.com" in the search box of Google to get to CNN's site. And that is perfectly ok. It gets him where he wants to go. So does going directly to Apple's site to install iTunes or the Windows Live site to get Messenger. Googling for an alternative client isn't going to happen.

The tiny footprint is almost irrelevant in my opinion. SSD's are overrated and over priced. Cheap netbooks have 160GB and larger hard drives. If you have that, you don't care if your OS is 64MB or 8GB. RAM is cheap too. I upgraded my Acer Aspire One to 2GB for $24, and my wife's serves her perfectly well at the included 1GB of memory.

The power savings issue of the ARM is nice, but that is not the ultimate deciding factor. I can get six hours of usage on my Aspire One using Windows 7 and having WiFi connected the whole time. Would I even for a second consider an alternative OS and switching all of my apps out for an extra two, three or even six more hours? No. That is what second batteries are for. I don't think most consumers are looking for a twelve hour usage. They need it for meetings, going to class or having a small work session at Starbucks.

What about the price though? My Aspire One cost $374 including the upgraded stick of memory, and that included the license for Windows XP. You may get an Android netbook for $200, but if it doesn't do what you want it to, or you have to make many changes and/or concessions, $200 looks pretty wasteful whereas $350 starts to look like a good value.

HP has tried this before. In 1998, They shipped the Jornada 820. It was their latest Handheld PC line. It ran Windows CE and included a light version of Office, and I mean all of Office - Outlook, Excel, Word, Powerpoint and even Access. It had a USB port, a compact flash card slot for extra storage and a PCMCIA slot for network access - this was before people had WiFi networks everywhere. In fact, the term WiFi had not been coined yet. It could browse the internet, access your email, and sync important data from your PC. It was only about $800, which was really cheap compared to notebooks of the time. I paid $2,400 for a Dell Insprion 3500 and $4,000 for a Dell Latitude CPi A in 1999. $800 is an absolute bargain. No one bought it though. It was a better value to pay three times the price and do what you wanted to do on your machine.

I don't think HP will be more successful today, nor will anyone else for that matter. Scaling a phone that fits in your pocket up to a netbook that may not fit in a purse is really just adding a big screen and keyboard to your phone. Nice for emails and general web browsing, but lousy for real computing.

If Apple comes out with a netbook, and they'd be crazy not to, I suspect it will run OSX, not the iPhone OS. Microsoft has done a very good job with the beta of Windows 7 for netbook usage. With the possible exceptions of higher end games and serious photo editing, netbook hardware coupled with either platform will allow John Q. Public to do whatever he used to on the desktop in the corner of the den. He'll gladly pay the extra money for the comfort of working with something familiar. A 10 inch phone simply won't get you there.

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