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Netbooks to Become the New OS Battleground

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Microsoft (s msft) has already experienced the power the netbook has to open up operating system options for PC consumers, since it saw Linux distributions being included as the default operating system on consumer-oriented machines for the first time with the advent of the small, affordable, feature-light machines. They’ve since managed to gain a foothold in the very lucrative market by staving off the end-of-support date for Windows XP, and it looks like they’re making sure Windows 7 is better suited for netbook use than Windows Vista was to ensure continued presence in that market.

But will it be enough? Recent reports suggest that others are poised to enter the fray, and the winner could well be determined by who provides an OS that can best deal with the hardware constraints presented by the netbook’s small form factor and lower price point. The new competitors Microsoft might have to deal with have already bested them in another mobile arena, that of smart phones, so it looks like competition will indeed be fierce. The new companies vying for the netbook market share look to be none other than Apple (s aapl) and Google (s goog). Round 2! Fight!

Apple, as we reported yesterday, seems to be working on a small touchscreen device, something which seems even more likely today, thanks to corroborating reports from the Dow Jones news service, which cites two sources “close to the situation.” The Dow report goes into even more detail, describing the size of the screen (9.7 to 10 inches) and reiterating the second half of 2009 launch date for the device. Has it struck anyone that Snow Leopard will in fact be the perfect version of OS X for running on netbook hardware? The whole purpose of it is basically to improve the performance and lower the processor footprint of Leopard. In retrospect, it seems like Apple was telegraphing their plans, and I just wasn’t clever enough to pick up on it.

Google seems ready to bring Android into the netbook realm, at least according to a report at DaniWeb about how support for mobile internet devices (MIDs), which could easily apply to netbooks, is hard coded into the OS, even though we’ve yet to see it borne out in real-life application. And why not? Their own Chrome browser is basically tailored to netbook use, and having it supported by a lightweight, touchscreen-capable OS is the perfect recipe for netbook success.

At the end of the day, we have to remember that each of these companies is, first and foremost, in the business of making money. That means that a revenue generator like the netbook can scarcely escape their notice. And it’s basically impossible, considering the numbers netbooks are putting up, that companies like Google and Apple who devote massive spending to R&D would just give it a pass. Much more likely they’ve just been playing their hand close to their chest, but pretty soon, I think we’re going to see all the cards on the table.

22 Responses to “Netbooks to Become the New OS Battleground”

  1. Im no expert but it seems Apple has tended to lead rather than follow.
    They have been not afraid to kill off products in the past.
    They have changed processor architectures more than once! :)
    I suspect they will merge/phase out the old style laptops & desktops in favour of the new generation touch driven devices.
    I suspect 10″ – 15″ models will be marketed as self contained portable devices to be used around the house/office or toted places. Larger models based on the same tech will have elegant minimalist stands & Bluetooth or USB input devices. The large models will be aimed at & more appropriate workstation needs of industrial users (graphic artists, journalist, programmer, engineer etc).

    Right now hospitals capture vital signs data of patients for nurses/doctors but the only way to work with it is archaic keyboard driven devices sitting on desktops far removed from the patients. The sector is crying out for touch driven tablets to replace the forrests of paper!

    Look at what Apple done with home theater. The apple TV can sit unobtrusively out of sight. The old style destop iMac sits elswhere. It is still needed but for how much longer?

    Just my 2c.
    Thx for listening to my ideas!

    All posted from an iPhone tee hee!!

  2. By the way, I’m generally a gadget freak. I always have the latest toys and would love a tablet device from Apple (I’m a bit of a fanboy). I just somehow turned out to be the devils advocate in this discussion. hmm, I suppose someone has to do it.

  3. Pustoolio, Good call, but a BIG IF. If Apple (or anyone else) creates a touch device with enough power and ability to link and synchronize with other devices to allow you to use it in multiple roles then your right and it would be a must have device.

    Would Apple do that though? Would they create a device that would render their other products unnecessary? Why would I buy their laptop if I can use their touch device, why would I buy an iMac if the touch device connects to the 24 inch screen and a keyboard and mouse. Ditto the mini or even a Mac Pro. They won’t do all that. They might let it connect to a screen and keyboard though, but at what cost to Macbook and Macbook Air sales? It’s a dangerous business scenario for Apple. Rob Peter to pay Paul.

    If they created such a product it would have to have a processor that is either weaker than or the same as the Macbook Air in order to ensure their other product lines don’t suffer.

    Of course I could be wrong, which would be to the benefit to all of users and I’d buy one.

  4. Bernie, I think Chris/Chis is right. The touch pad will be different then the other items you mention because it will be multi-purpose. As technology progresses it will contain all types of sensors that will make it indispensable. And I am betting you’ll be able to dock it and type away at a keyboard too.

  5. Is it Chris or Chis? You’ve changed your moniker in the last two comments :)

    You seem very passionate about the subject of touch devices. I don’t doubt that they will come and be very successful. I’ll most likely end up with one, but in the end they are user devices, that is, appliances. It is an interface that is conducive to being a simple interactive end user experience. But it is an appliance that fits a specific niche, not what I would call a real computer, but then I am a bit of a dinosaur. It is doubtful it the touch interface will ever be truly successful for all content creation. Ditto for voice. In any case these new technologies will all work together to contribute to a better end product in the future. But just to say touch interface is the future is being a little simple. There are more interfaces to consider and they will all come in due time. And I’m fairly certain people will still be looking to their keyboards first when they start writing their documents. Voice has been promised for 20 years now, and it’s still not good enough and it seems you need an american accent more times than not.

    What you describe when you frequent your bars, cafes and fast food restaurants are really fads. We’ve seen them come and go; there used to be a big thing with fancy diaries and personal organisers, then came mobiles, then PDA’s, then smartphones, now netbooks. Sure tablets will come; they’re just appliances, another gadget for people to use. Don’t get so caught up with it.

    To paraphrase Douglas Adams, “I remember when digital watches were the next big thing”. :)

  6. Social aspects of the rise of Netbooks

    Im a westerner living in South East Asia. I walk into a burger king or other big fast food chain any day of the week I see dining areas crammed full of people in gorups. At every table I see a ‘Netbook’ of one brand or another.

    I see ‘charging stations’ provided by the store for all the cell phones of the customers.

    The people culturally form close knit social groups. Its wildly popular for them to huddle around a ‘Netbook’ or cell phone looking at friends & relatives social network web pages (Friendsfter, Tagged, Facebook etc), email etc.

    They use these things because they are cheap, portable & convenient.

    I think the ‘Netbook’ is only a short term phenomenon.
    Touch screen Wifi enabled tablets will be very very popular.
    Unfortauntely as usual it take Apple to do it because every body else lacks vision.

  7. Sure Bernie I understand completely that big screens will be desired/needed for some tasks going forward. Its nice for you that you can afford a 30″ screen for your programming but dudes have been hacking using far more humble screens than that for decades! Obviously powerful workstations will always be needed but more and more the input device will be less intrusive & more separated from the processing unit.

    I believe that keyboards, mice & big boxes will vanish for the most part over the next 5 years.

    Kevin is right, this is the expression of Apples long term strategy.

    Take a look at a person who has never been ‘trained’ to use a ‘computer’.
    They reach up point & touch the screen to indicate what they want to do.
    This is perfectly normal human behavior!
    It takes them ages to learn to hand eye co-ordinate a mouse & ages to use a keyboard.

    The new touchscreen OS’s will do away with all that crap!

    And lets not forget voice interaction.
    The newest voice added to Leopard is very natural sounding human voice.
    The processors have enough oomph to cope with the workload of voice activation, even an iPhone can accept a spoken name to be looked up in contacts etc.

    All it takes is someone like Apple to implement this in a usable & sane way.

  8. It’s just a tool ChrisG.

    Every tool is useful for different purposes. Let’s not get to evangelical about this. Haven’t you noticed that screens are getting bigger. Most iMacs are now 24 inch. I’m writing this on a 30 inch screen, which goes to say I’m at a desk; I don’t do video or photos for a living, I’m a programmer and like the real estate. You may have noticed that big screen TV’s are also popular.

    Many of us work at desks; we don’t want to squint at net-books or tablets constantly. They have their uses but not at a desk. On a plane or on a holiday perhaps. If I were a business man flying around or traveling a lot, I’d use a laptop as I’d want a proper keyboard and a reasonably sized screen to produce my presentations on.

    It’s horse for courses. Each tool has a different goal and purpose, let’s not lose sight of that.

    This is a marketing and sales opportunity for Apple, no more.

    If I retire, I might buy a netbook, it would be handy for blogging or storing digital photos of my holiday snaps. But I don’t need one now. If I was young and a student it might be handy at school as long as I had a bigger screen and keyboard to hook it into for serious work; or maybe sync it to my desktop :)

    My iPhone is a great tool for emergencies as I always have it with me, but it is primarily for reading not for writing on.

  9. Interesting that some posters refer to the need to photoshop as their only need to from their iPhone to their Mac. I used to think like that but the increased availability of mobile apps is negating even that need!

    It is now possible to open edit & save pics on your iPhone using Photogene 1.7
    This app lets me crop/colour correct & all the usual things that the average person would have done on a PC or Mac.

    The only heavy lifting now needed will be video editing.
    Only graphic artists need the absurd bloatware of Photoshop.

    I forsee that the iMac & MacBooks will phase out to be replaced by a range of tablet form touch driven devices. The Power Macs will continue a little longer but morph into a thing the size of a rack mount server & will live in a closet within wirless range of the new ‘Tablets’

  10. The next Apple game changer will be a touchscreen tablet form devices ranging from 10″ upwards. The bigger size units will have bluetooth or USB keyboards optional. What Apple name them i cant imagine but lets hope they dont keep naming them after raincoats.. :-/

    I agree the design of snow leopard & its apps e.g the new quick time & the new safari, show clear indications of the software design for the new touch/tablet devices.

    I strenuously refrain from using the word ‘computet’ when discussing these new era devices because that is an anachronistic inaccurate term.

    Has anyone noticed that Apple changed their business name to drop the quaint old term ‘computer’?

  11. The onky reason we had text only displays was because there was no alternative. Apple changed that with the gui. The only reason we had big noisy ugly hollow boxes was tthere was good alternative. Apple changed that with the lamp sytle & later lcd panel style iMac. The only reason we have been stuck sitting at desks pecking at keyboards or trying to use ridiculously badly engineered 3G cell phones encruted with obscure buttons is because we had no decent alternative. Apple have changed all that when they introduced the iPhone. At a stroke they showed a device that does away with old world keyboards & dinky obscure buttons & switches.

    People dont

    People are buying more & more laptops & netbooks. Why? Not just because if cost but increasingly with advent of ubiquitous internet the computer has formed the basis of a social tool in the same way the telephone & later the cell phone did.

    Within 5 years the desktop computer will be an anachronism.

  12. When Apple decided to switch to Intel in 2005, Jobs said their focus was on mobile, and not just computers. When Apple revealed iPhone using OS X, the battle was on. When Apple brought out the App Store, and bought PA Semi, it was doubling down.

    Apple’s ARM-based “netbook” will have both software and hardware advantages over anyone else. This next product is a result of a coherent Apple strategy that’s been ongoing for at least 4 years (and maybe 8 years back to the iPod).

  13. Bernie good points and let us not forget about the new Quicktime Player ridding itself of borders and transport controls.

    Apple’s steps are clearly taking the UI and saving as many pixels as possible. This means that whether you want to call it a Netbook or a Tablet or whatever Apple is certainly thinking about a product that runs full OS X and is mobile.

  14. It’s interesting that you cited the desire by Apple to make Leopard use a smaller footprint and operate more efficiently as an indicator that it was targeting a smaller system. I thought another indicator was Safari 4 beta moving the tabs to the title bar would also be good for small screens.

  15. Constable Odo

    If the proposed Apple netbook runs on an OSX Mobile variant, of say, Snow Leopard Mobile, it will already have a solid platform in place. It will be far more convenient than what other netbooks are offering since it would be able to directly download music, videos, apps, games, podcasts, etc. from the iTunes Media Store. Mobile.Me users would already have their storage cloud. Apple could lock up Apple netbook users by pulling them from other Apple devices such as the iPhone and iPod Touch users. Again, forget about outright volume. Make a device attractive enough that can maximize profits for the company and still sell in decent numbers.

    Apple merely has to make a simple, decent and affordable device. The only drawbacks are that the Apple netbook will undoubtedly cost $200 to $300 more than any other netbook being offered and it will likely cannibalize sales of the MacBook. In this economy I don’t think it can be helped. Better you cannabalize your own lineup than have some other company do it.

  16. Gazoobee

    Well cheapest does sometimes win, but in this case we are talking about a whole new platform.

    In that case, the company that gets there first (Apple) might define the platform and thus dominate. Microsoft doesn’t even have a viable entry in the battle at this point. WinMobile has already failed big time and the first re-tooled version (WM 7.0 )that really has a chance is still more than a year away and is currently total vapourware.

    I see OS-X dominating and Android filling up the rest of the market, with webOS form Palm being a possible wild card.

  17. I have to disagree. Netbooks are occupying a space that I don’t believe the iPhone version of OSX or Android can fill. People put up with the clunky interfaces (compared to full-sized keyboard and mouse) and underpowered apps (anyone seen Office or Photoshop on an iPhone or G1?) on their smartphones because the handsets are super portable.

    Netbooks are very portable, yes, but not as portable as phones. And they generally require wi-fi to get internet access. People put up with the slower 3G and EDGE speeds because, again, their phones are always available. As small as netbooks are, no one wants to carry one EVERYwhere (to the bar, a restaurant, work, the park, to pick up the kids, to the tennis courts or golf course, etc.).

    So, in the end, I think people are going to want a full-featured OS for their netbooks… Windows XP, Windows 7, Snow Leopard, Linux, all are perfect for this, as long as they can run acceptably on underpowered hardware. Sure, no one is going to want to do all their Photoshopping on a netbook, but if they 100% can’t, then there’s precious little reason to carry a netbook with them everywhere they go.

  18. First of all, nice big article! But, there is one setback for microsoft…

    They are pushing things too far and they still have ‘Vista’ to repair and fix! Keeping track of two OS is going to be a big roller-coaster ride!!

  19. Alan Smith

    I disagree. It may not be the best OS that wins, more likely the cheapest OS with good enough features that may win. Look at Windows, good enough and cheap (to the consumer). Lets hope that the best OS wins and that in my opinion is Apple OSX (iPhone/iTouch or Mac version).

  20. Gazoobee

    I think you are right in that the battle for this new mobile platform is where the action is for the foreseeable future but Windows seems like a long shot bet even so.

    Google Android is supposedly going to appear on netbooks later this year, and Apple’s iPhone version of OS-X will likely fuel Apple’s efforts at a “category killer” which is rumoured to launch soon. While Windows 7 is optimised to run on smaller hardware though, it’s a far cry from what in the other two camps is a complete re-write of the OS, or in Googles case, a completely new OS. Microsoft’s mobile OS, WinMobile, is not only old, creaky and already beaten, it does not share code with Windows itself and is at the moment being completely re-written in secret.

    The word is that the next version of Windows Mobile won’t arrive until late 2010, and that’s just too late. MS is hoping to use trickery and contracts to keep it’s hopes alive in the meantime but neither Apple nor the netbook manufacturers hoping to use Android are standing still.

    At the end of the day, the best hardware with the best OS will win, so to me it’s likely to be Apple if they chose to enter the category at all.