by Gerald Boerner
For the past three weeks we have been looking at the developments in hand-held computers. These devices have evolved from the primitive PDAs through the Newton and Palm Pilot to smart phones. Today, we are considering the upper end of this trend, the Netbook.
These hand-held computers are like miniature laptop computers in that they allow mobile computing. However, they are driven by lower-end processors that run at about half of the speed of the notebooks, have very limited memory (about 1 GB) and limit the size of the screen and keyboard. They use a variety of operating systems, usually on the lower end, and have limited processing power.
They are more familiar to the business person than the smartphones, but not nearly as “sexy” as the iPhone or Android-based smartphones. We are considering them today so that we can continue our evaluation of the new Apple iPad as well as tablet computers from other vendors. This series will follow in a few weeks.. GLB
“Mobile computing is moving from the fringe to the mainstream. Portable computers are becoming the primary PC.”
— Gerry Purdy
“In mobile computing, people are typically thinking about how great an ultra-portable product is.”
— Alex Gruzen
“We view (the Microsoft) contract as a portable computing deal, not a mobile email deal – no impact on RIM.”
— Gus Papageogiou
“There’s been lot of expansion happening in the notebook computing space. That has helped Intel quite a bit, but they need to have something new if they are going to maintain their presence.”
— Dean McCarron
“Securing the data on notebook PCs is one of the toughest challenges for I.T. professionals, and with the proliferation of mobile computing across all business segments, the threat of data loss and network breaches through theft of notebooks has never been greater.”
— William Diehl
“As notebook PCs become ubiquitous for computing, entertainment, and communication, the need for improved visual performance and longer battery life become paramount, … The innovations by BOE HYDIS clearly point to a future where brighter, higher contrast, and wider viewing angle displays are possible while keeping both the cost and power consumption down.”
“TELUS is excited to announce the availability of Wireless High Speed in Quebec City, giving our clients access to the next generation in high-speed wireless data services. By uniting the broadband access speeds of our Wireless High Speed network with the newest portable computing products, TELUS is providing clients across Canada with the most powerful mobile data solutions available.”
— Robert Blumenthal
“We view Dell as a company in transition from a highly efficient distributor of commodity desktop computers to a provider of enterprise products and services, … Dell’s revenues remain highly dependent on commercial desktop unit shipments in the U.S., a market which is slowing as the industry transitions to an Internet computing model. Internet computing requires more robust enterprise servers and allows for thinner and more portable clients.”
— Kevin McCarthy
History of Hand-Held Computers: Netbooks
Netbooks (sometimes also called mini notebooks or ultraportables) are a branch of subnotebooks, a rapidly evolving category of small, lightweight, and inexpensive laptop computers suited for general computing and accessing Web-based applications; they are often marketed as “companion devices”, i.e., to augment a user’s other computer access.
At their inception in late 2007 — as smaller notebooks optimized for low weight and low cost — netbooks omitted certain features (e.g., the optical drive), featured smaller screens and keyboards, and offered reduced specification and computing power. Over the course of their evolution, netbooks have ranged in size from below 5″ screen diagonal to over 10.1″, and from ~1 kg (2-3 pounds). Often significantly less expensive than other laptops, by mid-2009, some wireless data carriers began to offer netbooks to users “free of charge”, with an extended service contract purchase.
In the short period since their appearance, netbooks have grown in size and features, now converging with new smaller, lighter notebooks. By August 2009, when comparing a Dell netbook to a Dell notebook, CNET called netbooks “nothing more than smaller, cheaper notebooks,” noting, “the specs are so similar that the average shopper would likely be confused as to why one is better than the other,” and “the only conclusion is that there really is no distinction between the devices.” However, in the same month, Walt Mossberg called them a “relatively new category of small, light, minimalist, and cheap laptops.”
The origins of the netbook can be traced to the Network Computer (NC) concept of the mid-1990s. In March 1997, Apple Computer introduced the eMate 300 as a subcompact laptop that was a cross between the Apple Newton PDA and a conventional laptop computer. The eMate was discontinued, along with all other Newton devices, in 1998 with the return of Steve Jobs. More recently, Psion’s now-discontinued netBook line, the OLPC XO-1 (initially called 100 US$ laptop) and the Palm Foleo were all small, portable, network-enabled computers. The generic use of the term “netbook”, however, began in 2007 when Asus unveiled the ASUS Eee PC. Originally designed for emerging markets, the 23 x 17 cm (8.9″ × 6.5″) device weighed about 0.9 kg (2 pounds) and featured a 7″ display, a keyboard approximately 85% the size of a normal keyboard, a solid-state drive and a custom version of Linux with a simplified user interface geared towards netbook use. Following the Eee PC, Everex launched its Linux-based CloudBook, Windows XP and Windows Vista models were also introduced; MSI released the Wind, Dell and HP both released a “Mini” series (the Inspiron Mini and HP Mini), and others soon followed suit.
The OLPC project, known for its innovation in producing a durable, cost- and power-efficient netbook for developing countries, is regarded as one of the major factors that led top computer hardware manufacturers to begin creating low-cost netbooks for the consumer market. When the first ASUS Eee PC sold over 300,000 units in four months, companies such as Dell and Acer took note and began producing their own inexpensive netbooks. And while the OLPC XO-1 targets a different audience than do the other manufacturers’ netbooks, it appears that OLPC is now facing the competition that was catalyzed per se. Developing countries now have a large choice of vendors, from which they can choose which low-cost netbook they prefer.
By late 2008, netbooks had begun to take market share away from laptops. In contrast to earlier, largely failed attempts to establish mini computers as a new class of mainstream personal computing devices built around comparatively expensive platforms requiring proprietary software applications or imposing severe usability limitations, the recent success of netbooks can also be attributed to the fact that PC technology has now matured enough to allow truly cost optimized implementations with enough performance to suit the needs of a majority of PC users. This is illustrated by the fact that typical system performance of a netbook is on the level of a mainstream PC in 2001, at around one quarter of the cost.
While this performance level suffices for most of the user needs, it caused an increased interest in resource-efficient applications such as Google’s Chrome, and forced Microsoft to extend availability of Windows XP in order to secure market share. It is estimated that almost thirty times more netbooks were sold in 2008 (11.4 million, 70% of which were in Europe) than in 2007 (400,000). For 2009, sales are expected to jump to 35 million, rising to an estimated 139 million in 2013. This trend is reinforced by the rise of web-based applications as well as mobile networking and, according to Wired Magazine, netbooks are evolving into “super-portable laptops for professionals”. The ongoing recession is also helping with the growing sales of netbooks.
In Australia, the New South Wales Department of Education and Training, in partnership with Lenovo, are providing Year 9 (high school) students in government high schools with free Lenovo S10e netbooks preloaded with software including Microsoft Office and Adobe Systems’ Creative Suite 4. This is provided under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Digital Education Revolution, or DER. The netbooks run Windows 7 Enterprise. They have unique tracking devices built-in that the police can track if it is lost or stolen. The NSW DET retains ownership of these netbooks until the student graduates from Year 12, when the student can keep it.
Greece is providing all 13 year old students (middle school, or gymnasium, freshmen) and their teachers with free netbooks in 2009 through the “Digital Classroom Initiative”. Students are given one unique coupon each, with which they redeem the netbook of their choice, up to a €450 price ceiling, in participating shops throughout the country. These netbooks come bundled with localised versions of either Windows XP (or higher) or open source (e.g. Linux) operating systems, wired and wireless networking functionality, antivirus protection, preactivated parental controls, and an educational software package. Microsoft and Intel have tried to “cement” netbooks in the low end of the market to protect mainstream notebook PC sales, because they get lower margins on low-cost models. The companies have limited the specifications of netbooks, but despite this original equipment manufacturers have announced higher-end netbooks models as of March 2009.
Ending in 2008 the report was that the typical netbook featured a 1.4 kg (3 lb) weight, a 9″ (23 cm) screen, wireless Internet connectivity, Linux or Windows XP, an Intel Atom processor, and a cost of less than 400 US$.. A mid 2009 newspaper article said that a typical netbook is 1.2 kg (2,5 lb), 300 US$, and has a 10″ screen, 1 GB of memory, a 160 GB drive, and a wireless transceiver for both home and a mobile network. Buyers drove the netbook market towards larger screens, which grew from 7″ in the original Asus Eee PC 700 to 10,1″ models in the summer of 2009.
In 1996 Psion started applying for trademarks for a line of netBook products that was later released in 1999. International trademarks were issued (including U.S. Trademark 75,215,401 and Community Trade Mark 000428250) but the models failed to gain popularity and are now discontinued (except for providing accessories, maintenance and support to existing users). Similar marks were recently rejected by the USPTO citing a “likelihood of confusion” under section 2(d).
Despite expert analysis that the mark is “probably generic”, Psion Teklogix issued cease and desist letters on 23 December 2008. This was heavily criticised, prompting the formation of the “Save the Netbooks” grassroots campaign which worked to reverse the Google AdWords ban, cancel the trademark and encourage continued generic use of the term. While preparing a “Petition for Cancellation” of U.S. Trademark 75,215,401 they revealed that Dell had submitted one day before on the basis of abandonment, genericness and fraud. They later revealed Psion’s counter-suit against Intel, filed on 27 February 2009.
It was also revealed around the same time that Intel had also sued Psion Teklogix (US & Canada) and Psion (UK) in the Federal Court on similar grounds. In addition to seeking cancellation of the trademark, Intel sought an order enjoining Psion from asserting any trademark rights in the term “netbook”, a declarative judgement regarding their use of the term, attorneys’ fees, costs and disbursements and “such other and further relief as the Court deems just and proper”.
On June 2, 2009, Psion announced that the suit had been settled out of court. Psion’s statement said that the company was withdrawing all of its trademark registrations for the term “Netbook” and that Psion agreed to “waive all its rights against third parties in respect of past, current or future use” of the term.
Netbooks typically have less powerful hardware than larger laptop computers. Some netbooks do not even have a conventional hard drive. Such netbooks use solid-state storage devices instead, as these require less power, are lighter and generally more shock-resistant, but with much less storage capacity (such as 8, 16, or 32GB compared to the 80 to 160GB mechanical hard drives typical of many notebooks/laptop computers).
All netbooks on the market today support Wi-Fi wireless networking and many can be used on mobile telephone networks with data capability (for example, 3G). Mobile data plans are supplied under contract in the same way as mobile telephones. Some also include ethernet and/or modem ports, for broadband or dial-up Internet access, respectively.
Processor architectures: X86
Most netbooks, such as those from Asus, BenQ, Dell, Toshiba, Acer use the Intel Atom notebook processor (typically the N270 1.6 GHz but also available is the N280 at 1.66 GHz, replaced by the N450 series with graphics and memory controller integrated on the chip in early 2010 and running at 1.66 GHz), but the x86-compatible VIA Technologies C7 processor is also powering netbooks from many different manufacturers like HP and Samsung. VIA has also designed the Nano, a new x86-64-compatible architecture targeting lower priced, mobile applications like netbooks. Currently, one netbook uses the Nano; the Samsung NC20. Some very low cost netbooks use a System-on-a-chip Vortex86 processor meant for embedded systems, just to be “Windows compatible”, but with very low performance.
Processor architectures: ARM
ARM Holdings designs and licenses microprocessor technology with relatively low power requirements and low cost which would constitute an ideal basis for netbooks. In particular, the recent ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore series of processor cores have been touted by ARM as an alternative platform to x86 for netbooks. These systems, when available, will be branded as smartbooks. Freescale, a manufacturer of ARM chips, has projected that, by 2012, half of all netbooks will run on ARM. In June 2009 Nvidia announced a dozen mobile Internet devices running ARM based Tegra SoC’s, some of which will be netbooks.
Smartbooks will deliver features including always on, all-day battery life, 3G connectivity and GPS (all typically found in smartphones) in a laptop-style body with a screen size of 5 to 10 inches and a QWERTY keyboard. These systems do not run traditional x86 versions of Microsoft Windows, rather custom Linux operating systems (such as Google’s Android or Chrome OS). Other barriers for the adaption of ARM are slowly being removed, for example Adobe is finally working on an implementation of the Flash player for ARM.
Processor architectures: MIPS
Some netbooks use MIPS architecture-compatible processors. These include the Skytone Alpha 400, based on an Ingenic system on chip, and the Gdium netbooks, which uses the 64-bit Loongson processor capable of 400 million instructions per second. While these systems are relatively inexpensive, the processing power of current MIPS implementations usually compares unfavorably with those of x86-implementations as found in current netbooks. After the ARM version, Adobe is planning to release a version of the Adobe Flash Player (version 10.1) for the MIPS platform.
Operating Systems: Windows
As of January 2009, over 90% (96% claimed by Microsoft as of February 2009) of netbooks in the United States are estimated to ship with Windows XP, which Microsoft was later estimated to sell ranging from US$15 to US$ 35 per netbook. Microsoft has extended the availability of Windows XP for ultra-low cost personal computers from June 2008 until June 2010. However, the discounted license costs only applies to reduced size and functionality netbooks, which effectively enables the production of low-cost PC’s while preserving the higher margins of mainstream desktops and “value” laptops as well as avoiding increased use of Linux installations on netbooks. Microsoft is also testing and has demonstrated a ‘Starter’ edition of Windows 7 for this class of devices, and Windows 7 is likely to replace XP on netbooks, and as of the first quarter of 2009 many netbook models previously announced with Windows XP for the US market were in fact being released with Windows 7 Starter instead, at the same price point previously announced for the Windows XP editions. However, unlike on regular desktops or notebooks that were sold with Vista but included a coupon for 7, users could not get a coupon for 7 Starter if they bought a netbook. Windows CE has also been used in netbook applications, due to its reduced feature design, that keeps with the design philosophy of netbooks.
Some netbooks have also been sold with Windows Vista (mostly prior to the release of Windows 7).
Many netbooks are by default unable to activate Windows in an enterprise environment using a Microsoft Key Management Service (KMS) as they lack System Locked Preinstallation (SLP) capability in their BIOS. The missing feature artificially segments enterprise customers from the lower end Netbook market; some hardware vendors offer an optional SLP-compliant BIOS to enterprise customers at additional cost.
Operating Systems: Linux
As of November 2009, customised Linux distributions are estimated to ship on 32% of netbooks worldwide, making it the second most popular operating system after Windows. As Linux systems normally install software from an Internet software repository, they do not need an optical drive to install software. However, early netbooks like the Eee PC failed to use this benefit by disabling access to the full range of available Linux software, and by failing to provide the normal desktop experience that people have come to expect from Windows, Mac OS X and Linux systems.
Netbooks have sparked the development of several Linux variants or completely new distributions which are optimized for small screen use and/or the limited processing power of the Atom processors which typically power netbooks, such as Ubuntu Netbook Remix which is based on Ubuntu and viewed as a “remix” rather than a new distribution, EasyPeasy, JoliCloud (which claims full GMA 500 graphics support for Z520/z530 Atom variants), and Moblin, originally supported by Intel but now supported by the Linux Foundation. Both JoliCloud and Moblin purport to be “social oriented” or social networking operating systems rather than traditional “office work production” operating systems. See the full list of Netbook Distributions. An Intel-sponsored beta version of Moblin version 2.0 became available in the autumn of 2009.
Operating Systems: Android
Google’s Android software platform, designed for mobile telephone handsets, has been demonstrated on an ASUS Eee PC and its Linux operating system contains policies for mobile internet devices including the original Asus Eee PC 701. ASUS has allocated engineers to develop an Android-based netbook. Freescale have also announced plans for a low-cost ARM-based netbook design, running Android. In May 2009 a contractor of Dell announced it is porting Adobe Flash Lite to Android for Dell netbooks. Acer announced Android netbooks to be available in Q3/2009.
In July 2009, a new project, Android-x86, was created to provide an open source solution for Android on the x86 platform, especially for netbooks.
Since the initial work on Android, Google announced a netbook specific operating system, Chrome OS, and future operating system development may be forked into Android for smartphones and similar handhelds, and Chrome OS for traditional keyboard driven machines like netbooks.
Operating Systems: Chrome OS
Google’s upcoming Chrome OS is expected to be loaded on some netbooks; some even speculate that Google will launch a Google-branded netbook running the Chrome OS.
Operating Systems: Mac OS X
Mac OS X has been demonstrated running on various netbooks as a result of the OSx86 project, although this is in violation of the operating system’s End User License Agreement. Apple has complained to sites hosting information on how to install OS X onto non-Apple hardware (including Wired and YouTube) who have reacted and removed content in response.
In November 2009, Apple Corporation won a summary judgement against Psystar on the grounds that Apple’s method of preventing Mac OS X from being installed on non-Apple hardware is protected by the DMCA.
Apple unveiled the iPad on January 27, 2010. Though officially a tablet PC, the iPad is considered by some to be Apple’s closest compeitition to Windows-based netbooks. The iPad will operate on the iPhone OS rather than Mac OS X but departs from completely mimicking the iPod Touch by including a touch screen operated version of its iWorks program ($9.99 per module) and offering an accessory keyboard.
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
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