With any luck, the Voice of Reason may yet prevail, and someone’s going to do the netbook right for a change.
There’s no way to say this without inviting some ire. Netbooks suck. They’re the product of a great idea gone sour — when you buy your netbook, you’re settling for the let’s-just-get-it-out-quickly product. Netbook makers have taken the most essential features of the desktop and squished them into a much smaller package; the results are... interesting.
We’ve had the considerable displeasure of using Windows on a 7-inch, 800 x 480 screen. We’ve seen the OK and Cancel buttons of dialog boxes vanish below the taskbar, we’ve seen word processors give us barely enough space to see a paragraph of text, and we don’t like it one bit. Though the experience on bigger screens is less annoying, the fact remains: Windows (and nearly every application for it) was never built for such small screens, and that’s not likely to change.
This brings with it a potential future problem too: what happens when these tiny screens become tiny touch screens? Windows XP’s Tablet PC edition is uneventful at best, and while Windows Vista and 7 deal with touch screens better, you’ll still have to drag around the little on-screen mouse to use most features, because Windows isn’t finger-friendly either.
And you Linux fans sitting in the back there: stop sniggering.
Even though netbook manufacturers have customized their Linux distributions with startup screens that work well for small screens, they’re still running the same applications, on the same desktop environments (GNOME, Xfce, or KDE, as the case may be), making their interface enhancements pointless beyond the program launcher. In some cases, Linux desktops are even worse: the massive fonts and buttons make even a 13-inch screen seem insufficient and uncomfortable.
And it isn’t just the software that doesn’t belong.
We’re supposed to look at netbooks as minimalist, almost purpose-built devices. They’re supposed to let us use the internet, do some basic office work, and maybe watch the occasional movie. Anything they do beyond that is a welcome bonus. And yet, instead of a hardware platform that’s built to do a few things really well, netbooks run on a platform that’s built to do as many things as possible, as best as it can — x86.
Using the x86 platform on the netbook makes sense—it’s what we’re exposed to the most, whether we’re using Windows or Linux, and more importantly, it powers our favorite applications. As a general-purpose processor, its architecture is built so that it can handle anything that you try to do on your home PC — the web, office work, games, protein folding, and much more. In the interest of general purpose-ness, the x86 platform sacrifices speed to be able to do everything.
But the minimalist netbook doesn’t need a can-do-anything processor, it needs a will-do-the-essentials-perfectly processor. Such processors exist in the wild, too: they’re powering your game consoles, PMPs, Internet tablets, and smartphones.
So if the hardware doesn’t belong either, where do we go from here?
We already know what we expect netbooks to do properly: connect to the internet, run the essential office applications, and entertain in between.
On the software front, then, we want applications that are designed for small screens, don’t hog resources, and still have the features we’re used to. We also hope for cheap touch screen netbooks in the future, so the interfaces also need to be finger-friendly.
This is where everything starts to sound oddly familiar. We’ve seen these things before, but nobody called them netbooks. They’re already running operating systems and applications that are perfect for their small screens (some of which are touch screens), and while they may not do movies, they do manage to let us use the web, get some office work done, and listen to some music. They’re called PDAs and smartphones.
Maybe the ideal netbook isn’t a shrunken desktop after all — maybe it’s a pimped-out smartphone.
Apart from their ability to do nearly all the stuff we want to do with netbooks, there’s a lot more to love about the smartphone. Because they’ve been small-screen devices forever, every application for a smartphone is designed with that screen in mind. The applications for touch screen smartphones, too, are designed to be finger-friendly (well, the better applications, at least). The operating systems themselves are designed not to hog memory or processor cycles, much unlike the systems we’re using on netbooks right now.
And then, there’s the hardware. Most smartphones and PDAs run on ARM-based processors, which are the mobile world’s will-do-the-essentials-perfectly processors we just talked about. They’re designed to consume as little power as possible, and can even include hardware tweaks to play movies and music better.
So if you take the innards of a smartphone, inject them with even more computing power, and stick them into the body of a current netbook, you might just get the netbook that should have been.
This isn’t the dream of an annoyed writer, either — in the coming months, we’ll see the netbook market slowly divide itself into the ARM-based and the x86-based.
In this corner...
The idea of an ARM-based netbook probably started with Google Android. It was the first Linux-based smartphone OS to see any real success, and when Linux meets success, it’s widely regarded as a Good Thing®. Even though Android won’t run standard Linux applications, it’s probably the most mature avatar of Linux that runs on an ARM chip. Naturally, this begets the question “Can you call a really big Android phone a netbook?”
It’s being answered.
Back in March, market research firm Ovum predicted that we’ll see the first Android-powered netbooks later this year. At Computex in June, Qualcomm demonstrated a sleek little netbook based on ARM’s Snapdragon chip—the same chip that powers the iPhone. A Chinese company called Guangzhou Skytone Transmission Technologies has already put up a product page for the Skytone Alpha 680, an Android-based netbook with a 7-inch touch screen. By next quarter, Freescale wants to push its own Android-based netbook onto the masses. And in Taiwan, an OEM has come up with a netbook that has both ARM and x86 chips — you’ll run Android on the ARM, and Windows on the x86, should you miss the OS that much. The kicker? All these netbooks will cost less than $250 (Rs 12,500).
And the ARM madness isn’t just confined to Android, either. NVIDIA is now the proud parent of the Tegra, an ARM-based “system on a chip”, which sticks a CPU, GPU, northbridge and southbridge into a tiny die, and is all set to power UMPCs running Windows Mobile or CE. And yes, it’ll run Android too, if vendors want it to.
And yet, as ARM-based devices are set to make their big entrance, they might just trip over something silly — Adobe hasn’t ported Flash to ARM yet, and since a sizable chunk of your internet experience involves your Flash plugin, these devices may end up being non-starters.
The x86 camp isn’t sitting idly by, either. Intel has been spearheading Moblin (short for Mobile Linux), a Linux desktop built for small screens, and optimized for the Atom. We’ve poked around in the beta, and it does address several of the issues we have with current operating systems. Instead of wasting space with irrelevant panels, it uses a simple tabbed interface at the top. Applications invariably occupy the whole screen, and have only the most essential buttons, giving you all the screen space possible.
All these features come with a rather pretty UI, powered by Clutter, a new user interface toolkit that uses OpenGL to deliver the “richness” we have come to desire from our interfaces. Under that, though, it’s using GNOME Mobile, which means that unlike Android, it’ll run regular Linux applications easily.
Moblin still has a way to go before it’s truly usable — some parts of the interface are still the same old windows and it doesn’t have a word processor yet, but with Intel pushing it strongly, this isn’t over yet.
On the less exciting front, Ubuntu now comes in a “Netbook Remix” flavor, which also uses Clutter to make the interface better for small screens. However, apart from some minor tweaks, it’s still the same interface underneath, which means you still lose pixels to unnecessarily large buttons, and other such frills.
But even as the platforms are evolving to make 7-inch screens usable once again, another problem rears its ugly head.
The unsolvable interwebz
Ironically, the one thing 7-inch netbooks won’t be able to do — not while they’re 800 x 480, anyway — is provide a great internet experience. Most sites are designed for screens that are at least 1024 pixels wide, so you’re going to see ugly horizontal scrollbars as you surf. And since 800 x 480 is way bigger than your mobile phone’s screen, the mobile layouts for the sites will look quite silly.
It’s wishful thinking to expect that web developers are going to modify their sites just for a bunch of netbook users—no matter how much the world loves netbooks—so unless the 7-inch, 1024 x 600 LCD becomes much cheaper, netbook manufacturers will either have to apply custom style sheets to make sites look right, or just let you suffer.
But even badly designed sites are not going to stop anyone.
Unbeknownst to you, this topic has been the subject of a few heated IRC debates. While some of us are rooting for the ARM-based underdog, others don’t see the merit in trying to redo the netbook — “try getting professionals to ditch Outlook”, they say. As long as Intel continues to improve on the Atom (and any x86 platform that succeeds it), there’s no compelling reason to switch to a completely alien platform.
But we train ourselves to use our smartphones quickly enough — why not on a cheap netbook, as long as it does everything we want it to?
It all comes down to you: do you want to stick to your Windows or Linux netbook, or will you jump ship to an Android netbook that’ll do all that you need it to, only in different programs? The forums, as always, are open.