Netbooks, History and Apple

acer-aspire-netbook.jpgDave Winer published a piece explaining his views on netbooks, and he brings up Apple (s aapl) because a) he uses Macs and b) Apple has publicly stated its disinterest in getting in the netbook game. (I’m setting aside whether Apple really isn’t getting in the game.)

He also mentions there’s “more sniffing from people who love Macs about how inadequate the current crop are.”

I believe there’s some truth to that statement. The gist of his article is that netbooks are great, and people who don’t get that may be missing something.

People who don’t think these are great computers must not have a sense of history. My first personal computer, purchased in 1979, cost $10,000, had two small floppy drives, 64K of memory and ran a very bare-bones OS.

True enough but, unlike David, it’s the sense of history that has me uninterested in netbooks, not enamored of them.

First of all, the argument should be about today’s netbook stacked up to today’s laptop. After all, that’s the choice the consumer is making. However, if I use the perspective of history, consider the $700 Radio Shack laptop I bought circa ’89. It was text-based with a Tandy “easy to use” text front-end. It stored everything on a floppy. I bought it to write on the road, then I’d import the text into Word 4.0 on my Mac SE/30 to format it. Worked like a charm. I consider that somewhat analogous to what a netbook does for people today (i.e., supplement their desktop PC).

But in ’89 I could not get desktop performance in my lap. The average laptop cost way more, with way less power, than the average desktop. Both gaps have closed tremendously since then. Especially in the last half-decade, where chips and laptop design have received the engineering attention necessary as the market demanded more portable solutions. The trade-off now in performance between laptops and desktops is almost trivial, and the price delta is much smaller as well. No, I’m not talking about a monster desktop video editing station with three video cards, a 2TB RAID array, and six monitors. But then, neither is David. The 2.4GHz unibody MacBook I’m using right now runs neck and neck with the 2.8GHz iMac I bought only a year earlier — including graphic-intensive apps — yet it cost nearly half as much. That’s a price/performance delta unimaginable even 10 years ago, let alone 30.

I do not “sniff” at netbooks. If someone wants a machine analogous to what I bought 20 years ago — in terms of price/performance — go for it. Everyone has their own needs. But back then, we chose between “good” performance (desktop) and “bad” performance but with portability (laptop). Today’s buyer can choose portability with “good” performance (laptop) or “bad” performance (netbook). For maybe 25 years we lived with much weaker performance on portable machines because we had to; that’s no longer true. That Tandy served me well, but I’ll pass on taking a step backwards for something similar today.