What does the "netbook" craze tell us about the future of laptops.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Dec. 29 2008 7:03 PM

Time for a Tablet

What the "netbook" craze tells us about the future of laptops.

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At the moment, netbooks could stand a great deal of improvement. First, they're ugly—many are more than an inch thick, which isn't bad for a standard laptop but looks kind of goofy on a little guy. They've also got a few flaws that keep them from excelling at their main task of lightweight network computing. In particular, many lack access to cellular networks—if you want Internet connectivity away from a Wi-Fi hot spot, you've got to get it through an add-on card or by connecting the computer to your cell phone. (Some newer models—like the Acer Aspire One—do carry a 3G chip, and we can likely expect some more 3G-equipped models at CES.) More importantly, netbooks need better operating systems—in particular, a very fast, mobile operating system that can download and install trusted applications on the fly, over the air.

It may sound like I'm calling on Apple to build a netbook. I'm not. For years, people have exhorted Apple to build cheaper computers, a clamor that's only risen during the recession. But CEO Steve Jobs has consistently disavowed this approach for pretty much the same reason cited by that Sony exec—a race to the bottom that ends in "junk" machines. More importantly, proponents of an Apple netbook forget that the company already makes an underpowered, ultraportable computer: It's called the Macbook Air. If Apple were to release a cheapo, tiny laptop, won't customers wonder what to make of its high-ticket, tiny laptop?

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Instead, I'm suggesting that the thing we think of as a netbook should really be something else—a flat-panel, touch-screen tablet that can do photos, music, movies, e-mail, games, and full-function Web browsing. The device would include a small amount of onboard storage but would depend on the Internet cloud for most of its resources. Why no keyboard? Because then the device would be conceived as an appliance. You'd use it mainly for passive computing—for reading e-mail and Web pages, for looking at photos, for sharing documents in a meeting. You'd keep it on your lap to scan Facebook as you watch TV or bring it to bed to read the news before you go to sleep. You'd catch up on your e-mail as you ride the bus to work; you could respond to that e-mail using the on-screen keyboard, and when you get to the office, you could connect a USB keyboard.

Apple could make this, of course. What I'm talking about is basically a souped-up iPhone or iPod Touch—say, one that's 7 inches across instead of 3.5 inches and has a slightly faster processor. These could sell for $400 or $500 (plus the purchase of a data contract). Apple's fans have long called on the company to build a tablet computer, but this isn't just a suggestion for Jobs. A host of other firms could make such a device, including Sony, Samsung, Nokia, and Motorola. Or, a startup: Over the summer, the TechCrunch blog launched its own crowd-sourced project to spec and build a cheap Web tablet; as of now, the community has built a rough prototype. Any company that builds one of these things doesn't even have to worry much about software; that's because the computer industry now has free access to Google's open-source Android platform, which has a stylish interface, an intuitive touch display, and a marketplace for third-party programs. Google, of course, would also benefit tremendously from the proliferation of a network-capable device that would keep you addicted to the Web throughout your house. Indeed, there are so many potential beneficiaries here—Apple, Google, Intel, the cell companies, and, of course, Web-addled you and me—that I'll be surprised if we don't see a great Web tablet in 2009. I can't wait.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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