The Netbook Phenomenon

One of the most interesting developments in computers in the past couple of years has been the increasing capabilities and popularity of netbooks. Actually, the netbook has been much longer in development, but as is the case with many advances in technology it has taken a while for this one to reach significant market penetration and public awareness. That time has arrived, and numbers of netbooks are now arriving on campuses in the hands of our students.
Some analysts consider netbooks to be merely small, cheap, and underpowered laptops. But that dismissive regard fails to recognize the most important point about netbooks: they are designed to be small and highly portable computers. That’s one of the main reasons for their increasing popularity. The need for a highly portable computer capable of basic functions led to the creation of a number of small form-factor systems that are lighter, have better battery life, and are less expensive.
Netbook History
As noted in an excellent article by Wireless magazine, the netbook has a fascinating history. Small devices such as these were conceptualized as a capable but inexpensive computer to be provided to children in disadvantaged countries through the very admirable non-profit One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program. The original price-point for computers under OLPC was intended to be $100, though production costs never quite met that low target. But an original goal that was successfully met was significantly improved batter life. Developers realized that most children in developing countries had no immediate access to electrical power, so extended battery life was a very important consideration.
The irony in all of this is that unlike most technologies, netbooks were not developed with the aim of making existing larger machines smaller — they were designed from the ground up to be small, lightweight, inexpensive, and very capable devices with solid quality and extended battery life. This is a relatively unique aspect of netbooks, and likely accounts for much of their current success.  
As word got out about the new types of systems being manufactured in Asia for OLPC, companies such as Asus soon adapted the concept and started commercial production for the consumer market. Asus was one of the first companies to manufacture a popular small form-factor laptop computer in the Eee series. This eventually led to the name netbook, though many originally referred to these machines as subnotebooks. At the same time, developments in both mobile Internet devices (MIDs) such as the Nokia Internet Tablet N800; and in ultra-mobile personal computers (UMPCs) such as the Samsung Q1, also converged to create interest in small form-factor computers.
Who Makes Them?
Today most major computer manufacturers and a host of niche companies produce netbooks. Asus continues to be successful, and HP has met with considerable popularity in their line, including the Mini 311. Acer, Dell, Lenovo, and other companies are players as well. Most netbooks today have seven- to 10- in. screens and look like traditional laptops, except considerably smaller and much less expensive. They have hard drives or solid-state drives, WiFi, USB connectivity, and other standard features. Several companies comprise the CPU race including Intel, AMD, and more recently Nvidia. Operating systems include Linux, Windows XP (yes, still alive and well), and Windows Vista. Windows 7 and Google’s Android are reportedly coming soon. Prices have ranged in the $500 to $800 range, but have been dropping steadily in recent months toward a street price of about $400.
Wireless Capability
One of the most interesting aspects of netbooks today is that many models have integrated 3G wireless from commercial carriers like Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint. This makes them nearly anytime, anywhere devices. A problem remains in the lack of instant-on capability since boot-up of the OS still takes time, but newer OS’s are targeting instant-on functionality. Through the subsidized offers advertised by many wireless carriers including Verizon, AT&T, and others, netbooks from HP, Acer, and Lenovo are selling for $199 with a service contract.
According to IDC, netbook sales are expected to hit 42M by 2012. A logical question is whether they will take market share from laptops. Opinions vary on this point. Apple has dismissed netbooks as junky and unusable, and apparently will not be entering the market. But information shows that Mac laptops may already be losing ground to netbooks, possibly accounting somewhat for Apple’s negative comments.
In some ways, netbooks will not be new support challenges for campuses. But their growing numbers may well present more demand for campus WiFi bandwidth than less frequently used devices. And they are also likely to make personal computing much more of a ubiquitous activity on campuses. For institutions wise enough to adopt and utilize this tool, they can also contribute to teaching, learning, and student services.

About the Author

David W. Dodd is vice president of Information Technology and CIO at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. He can be reached at 201/216-5491 or [email protected]