2008 was the year of the netbook: My local electronics store went from having none in stock to a display offering some 20 types. Thanks to Intel’s Atom processors, and Asus and the amazing Eee PC, we’ve got a whole new class of low-powered, highly portable, and relatively cheap computers.
So what will 2009’s consumer computing revolution be? Based on the announcements made so far, tablet-format cellphone netbooks.
Standard netbooks are not the most usable machines. Their keyboards are small, as are their screens, and tiny touchpads lend a measure of frustration to moving the pointer. Spurred no doubt by a high-profile modder community, Asus has announced that it’ll be coming out with a touchscreen Eee netbook early next year. And big players like Toshiba have begun to enter the market with more slickly designed netbooks of their own.
Meanwhile, Sony’s been busy teasing everyone with an advertising campaign for a new Vaio laptop that offers scant info other than a claim for being “revolutionary” and a very bizarre long/thin form-factor that tallies up with leaked pictures of a similar device at the FCC. The idea of Sony entering the “vanilla” netbook market doesn’t jive with its classy computer designs, however, nor with the price range of its Vaio line. Further leaks on this Vaio “Pocket” show that the upcoming machine is a small, form-factor laptop with a unique Sony twist: It has a massive pixel-count screen at 1600 x 768, and runs Windows Vista.
But it’s the iPhone that will inspire 2009’s netbook crop. Think about it. It’s basically a whole-screen touchscreen mini-computer with web surfing, telephony and gaming applications. Yet it’s limited by its pocketable size — its battery life and processing power are strictly optimized, but cannot deliver high-end computer power. While Apple is said to be working on the problem, until the fabled Apple tablet surfaces, there’s room for everyone else to evolve the netbook into a tablet-style device with a built-in 3G cellphone.
The technology already exists, both from a display and processor viewpoint. The form factor makes for a simpler, more elegant design, and with no need for a physical keyboard there’d be more room for batteries or even a (gasp!) expansion port. Multitouch gestural control on a large screen makes for a powerful input-control system, and even the iPhone’s tiny virtual keyboard is surprisingly useful. Picture yourself using such a hardback book-sized device to watch movies on a plane, and then hooking it up to give your business presentation.
Who wouldn’t buy one of these, if it came at the right price?
Update: Venturebeat is reporting that people have hacked Google’s Android OS working on Netbooks. Will Android-based mini Tablets be the next big thing?