A few weeks ago my dad had some pretty hefty surgery. All told, the surgery itself was seven hours long, and by the time I left the hospital it was almost a 14-hour day. He was in the hospital for almost a week and by the […]


A few weeks ago my dad had some pretty hefty surgery. All told, the surgery itself was seven hours long, and by the time I left the hospital it was almost a 14-hour day. He was in the hospital for almost a week and by the end of his stay, one thing had become very clear: my iPhone had become the command center for my life and had squashed any thoughts I’d ever had of getting a netbook.

I’m not saying I don’t think there is a market for a device that’s larger than an iPhone but smaller than a MacBook — heck a few years ago when I was covering E3 for the gaming industry, I’d have loved a small device I could sit in a corner of the show floor and could bang out copy on. While researching this article, I took a gander at the Dell Mini 10v (the spiritual successor to the Dell Mini 9, only with a 120GB drive and larger keyboard with standard key placement) and had a few minutes of drooling and fantasizing about a small laptop to write on during lunch, or a “throw it in my bag and not worry if it gets stolen” laptop before closing the web page and muttering, “Really, Crumpy, what the heck are you going to do with that? This could be another $300 device that sits in a corner.”

All Things Are Not Equal

It’s not a fair comparison to plop an iPhone down next to a hacked Dell Mini running OS X and proclaim them the same. However, while a netbook is a list of pros and cons when compared to a full-sized laptop, the iPhone is as well when measured against a netbook. For, me, though, the trade-offs are worth it.

I have a Whitebook as my primary computer. When Dad was in for surgery I had planned on working remotely on Elizabeth (all my computers are named from characters in Young Frankenstein) from the waiting room. With the amount of SMS messages, Twitter updates and e-mails I was sending out to concerned people, I ended up just moving files I was reviewing over to the iPhone and just worked off that. Since the iPhone had become Central Command that day, I could cut and paste updates very easily to the different mediums. It also helped that the work I had brought with me was a PowerPoint file I was reviewing and I could flip through that just as easily on the iPhone.

I’ve also found that, while I’m comfortable using my laptop on a desk, or propped up on a lap desk in bed, using it on my actual lap isn’t very comfortable. By contrast, as odd as it may seem, I was very comfortable working on the iPhone in the uncomfortable chairs in the waiting room. I certainly wouldn’t want to work eight hours on it, or do a heavy document revision, but, for flipping through a deck while SMSing, Twittering, and emailing, it was fine.

Being Productive

“This is a one time deal,” I thought to myself on the way home. “There’s no way I’m going to view the iPhone as anything resembling a laptop/netbook substitute.” Over the weekend, while spending lot of time watching Dad sleep, I’d crack open Elizabeth and try and work on articles. A combination of the glare from his window, more uncomfortable chairs, and the bustling of the nursing staff made the laptop difficult to use. I downloaded QuickOffice to try out, and before I knew it, most of my article on Macs in the Enterprise was written. I was amazed how productive I was for the task at hand — roughing out a blog post.

Really, though, I shouldn’t have been. Since the day I got the device, the iPhone has become more central to my life each and every day. While it doesn’t have a decent-sized keyboard, a large screen, or the ability to do complicated tasks, the iPhone does have two things going for it no netbook has: an always-on Internet connection at no extra fee other than my standard AT&T cell/data package; and the ability to fit easily in my pants pocket.

Comfort and Convenience

For me there are the two sweet spots: the always-on Internet and small size. I’m willing to accept the limitations of the platform. While most of my posts for TheAppleBlog and my personal site pass through the iPhone in some fashion, the WordPress web interface on the iPhone isn’t responsive enough to do the final edits and submit it — especially if there are graphics involved. For just creating content, I’ve had great success. More than a few paragraphs of this article were written on QuickOffice waiting for elevators and cafeterias to open. If I needed to finalize more articles remotely, that might tip the scales towards a netbook.

Until recently, I’ve always thrown my MacBook in the bag with me as I head to work. Unfortunately, using my personal Mac as my primary computer stopped being cute and was generating some serious issues for Corporate so I’ve had to stop using it. As more and more of my data and life exists in the cloud, combined with the ever-present connection the iPhone has to the Internet, I’ve started thinking twice about undocking Elizabeth and bringing her with me. I use Evernote on all my computers so I can tag and have access to all my notes regardless of what computer I’m on. I use Culture Code’s Things on the iPhone and OS X to manage my to-do lists. I use Google Sync to keep my calendars synced through the cloud between iCal and the iPhone, and use the web interface at work to quickly add entries. Since QuickOffice can read from an iDisk, I’ve started thinking of getting a MobileMe account just so I can work off the same version of a document from any computer.

Portability Isn’t a Big Issue for Me

I don’t travel enough to enjoy the benefits of the ultra-small size of a netbook. As I said earlier, if I were still covering gaming conventions where carrying around the a full-sized laptop all day would be grueling without a sherpa to lug the thing, or flying enough to want to work on the tray table, I’d be ordering a Dell Mini 10v and Hackintoshing it in no time.

Granted, It’s Not Perfect

That’s not to say everything has been lollipops and rainbows. The iPhone is a closed device with no native file management. The advantage to QuickOffice is I can grab files off my iDisk (iDisk or Dropbox syncing across multiple computers is the one remaining temptation I have for a netbook). Getting files onto the device is often a multiple-step process, and I might need to think ahead and identify key files I’d need access to without the cloud. Also, the screen really is too small to have any sort of reference material up — I play D&D every Friday with my friends, and it’d be nice to have a small device I can read reference materials from.

These quibbles are minor, though. With my iPhone I can write, surf the Internet, e-mail, watch movies, manage my life, and play games from a device that fits comfortably in the front pocket of my pants. Major, long-form work is done on Elizabeth. Anything netbook-sized to me feels like one of the beds Goldilocks rejected.

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  1. @Mark “the WordPress web interface on the iPhone isn’t responsive enough to do the final edits and submit it ” have you looked into the free wordpress iPhone app. I use it frequently and love it.

    1. Yeah, I have. It has serious issues with the Apple Blog interface. But,I can’t do any formatting with it, so it’s good for quick posts.

  2. This is one of the best articles I’ve read about the iPhone. You have certainly captured what I think most iPhone users feel about their device. My husband, myself, my daughter, son-in-law, son and daughter-in-law could not live without our iPhones. I have used mine on travels from the top of Machu Picchu and from South African safari. I used to take a laptop, but fine the iPhone is more convenient and definitely more fun to use. I was just saying to my husband that the apps are far and away taking over the need to even browse the network … you can practically do everything via an app.

  3. Ethan Kaplan Tuesday, July 21, 2009


    I posted something like this, but actually wrote it on my iphone ;)

  4. saschakronberg Tuesday, July 21, 2009

    spot on article! I am thinking the same. As much as I would love a touchbook or netbook from Apple, I am still thinking of how to make use of it. I have an iMac at work, as well as a MacBokk (which I hardly use).
    When I am travelling, most of the time, I do all work from the iPhone.

    Very well written, Mark!

  5. Speaking of the D&D, i’ve tried using one of the free file transfer/view apps to transfer the PDF versions of books that I own onto my ipod touch in hopes of not having to bring my laptop to game night. The smaller books opened, but the larger books seemed to just hang the system.

  6. Great article Mark! What would you consider to be the essential apps for making your iPhone a “netbook replacement”?

    1. QuickOffice
      Wordpress App
      dropbox as a web app

  7. A very good article. Thank you for not saying that an iPhone can replace a netbook. I have heard that countless times which quite frankly is ridiculous as they have many similarities with even more differences. You made it clear that there were limitations with both but you prefer the iPhone for obvious reasons. Nice article.

  8. Sensible take on this topic. I find my Macbook getting left behind more and more thanks to the iPhone.

    I still think there’s a market for an in-between device – in tablet form. With an optional wireless keyboard. No keyboard at the gate, on the plane, on the sofa. Keyboard when you need to crank out some text in your room, at your desk, whatever.

  9. Scott Thompson Tuesday, July 21, 2009

    Thank you for mentioning Quickoffice. We’ve put a lot of effort into the application and it is rewarding to see folks like yourself making good use of it.

    1. While I have you, any plans to add dropbox support?

    2. Dropbox are coming out with their own iPhone app shortly.

      It would still be nice to see OpenOffice support. I don’t fully trust using iDisk.

    3. Yeah, but I’m assuming that app is read only.

  10. Cheon Fong Liew Tuesday, July 21, 2009

    yes, I just used my netbook budget to buy an iPhone 3GS!

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