General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

A service of the ABA General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

Technology eReport

American Bar Association - Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice

JUN 2009

Vol. 8, No. 2

Columns

 

TechNotes
Trends in Technology

Quick, name the top two things you do on your computer . . .

I would confidently guess that many of you responded with 1) email and 2) surfing the Web. And while we all certainly create documents and run other applications on our computers, the vast majority of our computing activities today revolve around email and the Internet.

That conclusion is one of the main factors behind the runaway success of the so-called “ netbooks.”

All of us are familiar with the typical, traditional laptop/notebook. Many of us probably use a laptop as our primary computer because it allows us to be mobile. We can work on our laptop at the office, and then take it home in the evening to get even more work done.

The traditional laptop has a screen between 13 and 15 inches, with some blooming up to 17 inches. Traditional laptops feature comfortable, full-size keyboards, and CD/DVD drives for installing software or watching movies on DVD.

Laptops for Everyone

Back in 2005, an elite group of computer scientists banded together for a noble purpose that became known as the One Laptop Per Child Association, Inc. The association intended to “create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop.”

To ensure a successful product, the team cut corners in every possible place—screen size was drastically reduced, the processor was extremely low powered, and the computer ran the free, open-source Linux operating system instead of Windows from Microsoft.

The One Laptop Per Child ( OLPC) computer was dismissed by many in the United States as a “toy” and a curiosity. Hardly anyone considered the OLPC computer a serious machine.

A funny thing started happening in 2007, however. Because the expense of the OLPC was next to nothing compared to traditional laptops, the foundation used an interesting marketing initiative to gain support for their project. The “ Give One Get One ” initiative allowed a person to buy an OLPC computer for themselves that would also pay for one laptop to be sent to a developing nation. The initiative was a repeatable success, and other computer manufacturers started paying attention to this odd little machine.

Teeny, Tiny Laptops

In late 2007, Taiwanese computer manufacturer Asus decided to release a unique laptop they dubbed the Eee PC (which they declare stands for “Easy to learn, Easy to work, Easy to play”). The Eee PC swiftly became a very popular novelty, mainly because the laptop’s price started at just a mere $245.

Asus was able to offer the Eee PC at such an incredible cost savings because the memory was only 256 MB, and the hard drive was only 2 GB. Those numbers are a joke compared with today’s laptops that regularly feature 4 GBs of RAM and 500–750 GB hard drives. Why would anyone want a laptop that was so woefully underpowered?

The hard drive on the Eee PC was not a conventional hard drive: It was 2 GB of “ solid-state” memory, similar to the memory found in USB memory keys and SD memory cards you pop into a digital camera. Traditional hard drives still have spinning platters and other moving parts that drain battery power. The solid-state drives built into the OLPC and Eee PC were faster, more efficient, and required less power than their traditional counterparts.

The Eee PC did not run Windows—that operating system cannot fit on 2 GB. The Eee PC ran a slimmed down version of the Linux operating system.

The biggest attraction of the Eee PC was that it barely weighed two pounds and was about the size of a paperback novel. At that size, the Eee PC easily fit in a purse or briefcase. Compare that to the 8–12 lb monsters that we all lug around on our shoulders every day.

As in everything else tech these days, the specs on the Eee PC started improving almost overnight. Within a few months, Asus was offering models with more memory and more hard drive storage, and people started buying them in droves. Technically minded folk started experimenting with installing Windows on the Eee PC, and it wasn’t too long before Asus started offering Windows-based models of their own.

By that time, other computer manufacturers started to take note of the growing popularity of netbooks, and the market quickly saw models spit out from MSI, HP, Dell, Acer, and Lenovo (IBM). By mid to late 2008, netbooks became popular enough that they started to take market share away from the traditional laptop market. Everyone wanted one of those cute little machines for taking notes, surfing the Web on the couch, and traveling.

By the end of 2008, Asus had sold somewhere around 5 million of their Eee PCs, and rest of the market sold another estimated 10 million. In one short year, the netbook market had become around seven percent of the world’s entire laptop market. That’s an incredible statistic.

Do More With Less

This amazing statistic completely defies the traditional computer industry. It has always been assumed that computer consumers want more screen, more memory, more storage, and more power. Each laptop released by a computer manufacturer featured more of everything to entice more buyers. The idea of a severely underpowered computer, with barely any memory or storage, was just ludicrous. But people were buying netbooks at a record pace.

The biggest factor in the netbook popularity has to be their price. You can pick up a netbook today with 1 GB of RAM and a solid-state hard drive with 16 GB+ of storage for around $300–$400. There are cell phones that are more expensive than netbooks today.

That’s why most people that buy a netbook already have a laptop or desktop. As much as a netbook can do, it would be foolhardy to have a netbook as your sole, primary computer. Not because it can’t do the work you need to do, but because it can quickly get uncomfortable staring at a tiny screen and typing on a scrunched-up keyboard for long periods of time.

Most people purchase a netbook as their secondary computer—the one they take to a meeting for notes; or to the couch to check fantasy football stats while watching the game; or check email on the bus.

Therein lies the genesis for the name “netbook.” Although these computers are miniature laptops, they are described by the term “netbook” because they are used primarily for surfing the Net and checking email. After all, neither of those functions require a lot of processing power, and certainly don’t require a lot of storage space. Most people can check their email via some sort of Web-based interface, or they simply visit Hotmail or Gmail. And if you use Google Docs for storing your documents, and connect to Google Calendar for your online calendar, why do you need any applications installed on your computer?

A recent survey of netbook owners revealed that 91 percent of them already owned a laptop, and 87 percent of them already owned a desktop computer. The majority of netbook owners have all three computer form factors. And while that fact could be passed off as a “techie thing,” it’s more fair to say that each computer serves a separate purpose. Just like you wouldn’t use a Phillips-head screwdriver on a flathead screw, you may be better served taking your netbook with you to the local coffee shop instead of your larger, heavier, more expensive laptop. ( Ross Kodner goes so far as to carry both a traditional laptop and a netbook now when he travels.)

The Downside of Itty-Bitty

As much as everyone touts the netbook revolution, there are certainly some downsides of using a netbook.

First, netbooks have no CD or DVD drives—there’s just not enough room. And while that could be a deal-breaker for some folks, it’s really becoming less of a problem as more software is delivered over the Web, and USB memory keys are getting more spacious all the time. I’ve been using a Dell Mini 9 for several months now, and I’ve never had an overwhelming need for a CD or DVD drive. Any information that I’ve needed to transfer to the netbook I’ve been able to do through USB memory sticks.

Second, as we’ve already discussed, netbooks are underpowered. Netbooks are fine for running your Internet browser and even Microsoft Office, but they won’t be able to run high-end video editing applications or 3D-enabled games. I don’t know too many lawyers that are playing Call of Duty, but if you are, a netbook won’t be your first choice as a gaming platform.

Third, many netbooks run the open source operating system Linux to keep the overall cost of the machines low. Linux is an incredible operating system: It’s just that most legal professionals don’t have the time to get themselves comfortable in that environment. You may pay a little more for a netbook preinstalled with Windows, but that would be money well spent if that’s what you’re familiar with. You will also be limited to Windows XP since Vista does not do as well on the low-end hardware. (Because of the popularity of netbooks, Microsoft is ensuring that Windows 7 will run well on the small machines.)

Lastly, the most prevalent complaint lodged against netbooks is the size of their keyboards. The spacing of the keys on a keyboard isn’t something that we often consider, but you’ll find that it can make a big difference when you try to place your hands on a shrunken keyboard. To make everything fit, some netbook manufacturers move the right shift key or reduce the size of the tab key—not a big deal in the overall picture, but it makes a big difference when you’re typing a document. To make sure you avoid hand cramps, read the reviews of the various netbooks and make sure you stick with 10-inch netbook models (such as the MSI Wind or the HP Mini 1000).

Netbooking Across the Universe

Even with the above list of negatives, netbooks continue to be very popular. Some people call them a fad, and predict that their popularity will start to drop off, but they have certainly become a formidable slice of the computer industry in a short time. If nothing else, they have certainly proved that there is a market for smaller, underpowered computers that people will just use to connect to the Internet. And if that’s all you intend to use a netbook for, then you’re on the right track.

Brett Burney

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