27 August 2008

Netbooks out in full force

For this holiday season, most of the major computer manufacturers will have some sort of netbook offering. This really represents a sea change in the way computers are made and marketed, and I think we have the OLPC's precedent to thank for it.

Technology is constantly getting cheaper, but manufacturers have always offset the savings by adding more features. As recently as 2005, it would have been folly to think that the manufacturers would abandon this (very profitable) collusion. The idea that a small computer could be less expensive instead of more expensive had not even entered the public mind. Yes, you could buy a "subnotebook" but it would have cost you about $2500.

OLPC's plans really shook things up. They said they wanted to bring computers to the developing world, a market which the industry was doing little for at the time. You could tell that everyone wanted a piece of the action. And that was why there was such vitriol in OLPC's interactions with Intel and Microsoft. But more significantly, I think, people started to understand that an inexpensive computer was something you would have to engineer, instead of just being something you picked up out of the trash and repurposed. That was the spark for the XO-1 and the Eee PC. Competition being as awesome as it is, now everyone wants a piece of the netbook pie.

Intel and Microsoft are somewhat apprehensive about this, and quite understandably.

Microsoft has grudgingly continued to ship Windows XP: for most of these computers, for reasons of both cost and performance, it's either Windows XP or GNU/Linux. In order to keep from cannibalizing sales of (the more expensive) Windows Vista, Microsoft enforces a bunch of crazy restrictions about the maximum specifications of computers that they'll sell you Windows XP for at the lowest prices. I don't see this ad-hoc business ending well. And if GNU/Linux gets a lot of mainstream credibility by making inroads on netbooks, that credibility will spread to the desktop (desktops and full-size notebooks), and people will think carefully when they have to decide whether to plop down another $50 or whatnot to get Windows.

Intel has already launched a lower-margin line of chips (Atom) to meet netbook demands. But, its continued relevance is far from certain. Many netbooks are designed to run GNU/Linux because Windows is either cost-prohibitive, or too slow, or vendors want to differentiate with their software. When the OS consists almost entirely of free software which the vendor can recompile at the drop of a hat, it can be made to run pretty much identically on another architecture. Just contrast that to Windows, where people have been stalling on moving from x86 to x86-64 for ages now. A bunch of non-x86 phones and handhelds already run Firefox, GTK apps, the whole shebang. How long is it before we see ARM processor-based netbooks?

1 comment:

  1. It's good to see you writing again. You must be busy this Summer!
    The netbook computers are selling like hotcakes already. Perhaps the dawning of a new era, eh?
    Speaking of new, I expect delivery of new netbook from www.netbookcomputers.com any day ;)