Netbooks Will Be Huge… in 2010

I’ve been surprised when attending a number of local developer community events that there haven’t been more laptops in use by attendees.  Perhaps the lack of free Wi-Fi was a factor.  One hears of various other events where many attendees have them and they are ‘Tweeting’ away.

However, I’m aware that university students have been bringing notebooks/laptops into classes for some time and increasingly so.

Separately, the netbook form-factor has become more popular lately.  Of course there was the UMPC, but it seems that the lack of a keyboard, or a regular one at least, along with the price-point over $1000 would easily put off purchasers.

Netbook (currently without a Microsoft update to pass a spell-check) computers are coming in around the $300 to $500 mark and now typically include an Intel N270 processor, 512MB to 1GB of RAM (2G is creeping in), a 8GB to 64GB SSD or small HDD with 100s of GB and an 8.9” to 10.1” screen.  Acer, Dell, LG & HP are some of the major brands selling them, typically under a ‘Mini’ moniker.

The major choice with a netbook is whether you go with a Ubuntu or Windows XP.  Yes, XP, not Vista.  Vista can be just too ‘fat’ (in the popular editions) to work well or at all (especially with smaller SSD drives), even though the hardware generally includes a GMA 950 graphics chipset for Aero Glass.  Search the web (including YouTube for videos) and you’ll see many current netbook owners successfully loading on the Windows 7 Beta or RC.  It has been reported by many that Microsoft is touting Windows 7’s netbook-friendliness.  It was also recently reported that Microsoft will sell discounted copies of Windows 7 Starter and Home Premium (like it did with specific XP editions) to OEMs if hardware falls within a new maximum specification.

Let’s quickly look at the likely usage profile for a netbook user, considering it’s capabilities.  The netbook user will IM, Tweet, blog, use Social networking web sites and software, do other web browsing, and perhaps use Office or more basic software.  Perhaps they’ll even play the odd low-spec casual or arcade game.  Much of this activity requires Wi-Fi availability.  Does this not describe typical student computer activity? Imagine students following slides or taking notes in lectures and doing web-based social activities in cafes, bars and other public places.  Don’t most campuses now have Wi-Fi?  Doesn’t the netbook represent a price drop of up to 50% compared to a laptop which is way over spec and form-factor for these activities?

So are there limitations for other activities that prevent use by students?  Well the keyboards can be a little cramped.  It’s usually necessary to get a 10”+ screen to get a usable keyboard layout with keys at 92% of regular size.  They don’t come with optical drives.  Depending on hard disk space, movies and other material can come along on disc and aren’t really needed for most of the activities above.  Also, things like Live Mesh and other services mean you don’t necessarily need everything loaded all the time.  Yes, I know students sit in lectures and watch movies with headphones on instead of listening, but just a handful.  The resolution is limited – often 1024×576 – which is enough for DVD movies but not 720P without down-scaling (which requires CPU or GPU power along with decoding).  However, it’s big enough for most of the core activities, and higher resolutions are now appearing for 10”+ screens.

OK, so the netbook form-factor is looking like a viable and student-price-friendly computer for on-the-go and learning locations.  Huge numbers of students all around the world are currently waiting for acceptance letters.  There are two big snags:

1.  As mentioned above, there are things that make the netbook computer unsuitable as a main machine for various groups of users.  This will come down however, to what kind of student or person you are.  If you like movies, software development, graphics stuff, playing WoW, CPU/GPU-intensive stuff and generally ‘vegging’ in front of your computer, you may have a budget decision.  If you do, then depending on if you already have a computer and whether you will be living at home or in a dorm, this may or may not be an issue.

If you live at home, commute daily to university and have a desktop computer then a netbook computer is the ideal mobile compliment.  If you have a notebook then you may not want to lug it every day (especially if its big), so a netbook may still be appropriate.

If you will live in dorms (likely the majority) then you will not have far to lug your notebook computer.  If you are making a decision for attending this year, it could be between a single mid-sized laptop or a more power laptop/desktop plus a mini – though clearly the latter is more expensive.  Depending on how you make your trip from home to the dorms each season, a desktop + mini may be an option that is the same price as a do-all mid-sized notebook computer.

Services like Live Mesh and others will no-doubt facilitate the multi-computer owner lifestyle.

I’ve mostly been talking about university students.  High-school students almost all live nearby their school or take a bus, so a netbook computer is a great compliment to whatever type of computer they have at home and may be an adequate single or even first computer.  This is another thing (like mobile phones) that school administrators will have to figure out how to deal with.  It’s a pity that the majority of education authorities are generally so behind on leveraging computer use that they will not be able to make use of the additional learning potential from these devices and are likely going to spend their time on rules to prevent the playing of games or even use of such devices at all.

2. Windows 7 is expected to RTM within a few months and Microsoft has confirmed retail availability for the end of the year.  This has been widely translated to an October release.  Most students wouldn’t want to invest in an XP machine for four years this August or September (unless they know it can be upgraded and how to do that without extra money).  People I’ve met with retail experience tell me that back-to-school is bigger than December.  As a netbook OEM I’d want Windows 7 by July to be selling in August/September.  Microsoft has been under-promising (though most watchers didn’t buy it) and over-delivering (if you believe the under-promising) lately, and many Windows 7 RC reviewers believe the product is basically ready to go.  It is possible that Windows 7 will come out early.  Two months from RC to RTM – possible but very tight.  Microsoft is apparently going to provide a free-upgrade to Windows 7 offer in July which helps somewhat.

Computer retailers are increasing carrying less desktop stock and more mobile stock.  There are a number of netbook computers on display, though they are largely the same small number of models in a variety of colours – so these things have some personalisation about them too which makes them more attractive to soome.  It’s likely that the current economy status is keeping their stock levels down too.  Come Aug/Sep this stock will grow, and retailers are deciding in the next two months which products they will carry.  Retailers, netbook/notebook OEMs and Microsoft are likely looking at this and wishing they could make Windows 7 happen as soon as possible.  Dell for example, is touting the Latitude 2100 for students.  This may be a shot in the wilderness until the Windows 7 free-upgrade is available, and would need to apply to XP purchases too if Microsoft expects any significant number of people to buy a netbook including XP with the hopes of moving to Windows 7.

In all likelihood, netbook sales will start taking hold this december and next year, when battery life, resolution, processing power and SSD storage price point have all improved.  I expect 2010 to be the real ramp-up for netbooks as standalone and first computers for some and complimentary computers for others using an increasing number of synchronisation services.  I also imagine that we’ll start seeing more computers, in netbook format, being brought to high schools or even provided by a small number of forward-thinking schools.