Netbooks: A terminal by any other name

Little computers been around for longer than the Asus Eee PC, and they still have a way to go

I'll admit it -- I'm a big fan of tiny computers. Everything from my stalwart MacBook Air to the Toshiba Libretto and Dell Mini 9 sitting in the lab are testaments to that. But to look around the market today and to read the blog posts and articles written about the netbook phenomenon, you'd think that Asus invented the concept of the tiny portable with the Eee. The company did make it cheap, but it's certainly nowhere near the first to try the tiny form-factor.

In my garage, running Fedora Core 4, is a Sony Vaio SR-7K. It boasts 512MB of RAM, a P-III 600MHz CPU, and a 10.4-inch screen. No Wi-Fi, no built-in Ethernet, no Bluetooth, no optical drive, but it's an incredibly tiny 9-year-old system that still works fine. I use it for reference in the garage when I'm working on my cars. Is it a netbook? Well, no, not strictly speaking because there are no network interfaces native to the unit, but its diminutive size and suggested uses bear more of a resemblance to the MacBook Air's features than anything else, even if there's a Wi-Fi PC Card sticking out the side.

[ The InfoWorld Test Center rates netbooks for business. See which came out on top. | InfoWorld editor in chief Eric Knorr offers notes from the netbook revolution. ]

One thing that the Vaio had, though, was a completely usable keyboard. The current crop of netbooks seem to have some significant problems in that regard. Perhaps the most usable keyboard I've seen on a recent netbook was the 10-inch Eee. While I think coding on that unit would drive me nuts, it's quite usable for most other tasks. With the Dell Mini 9, coding isn't even an option, really. With the {}, [], ~, and | keys accessible only via Fn-key, it's really a nonstarter. In fact, the ridiculous placement of the single- and double-quote key to the right of the spacebar makes just typing contractions a pain. Fortunately you can remap a few keys to make it slightly easier to use. Or you could drop $20 and get the US-INTL keyboard that shrinks the letter keys by 2mm in width, but provides many more regularly accessible punctuation keys. It's still a tiny keyboard no matter how you slice it.

This really isn't news, though. Small devices have small keyboards. Shocking. But what if you could take that small device and create your own key layouts on the fly? If there were a netbook/notebook with an iPhone-style software keyboard that could be remapped at a whim, with all the keys reorganizing themselves as you determine, without having to pop the caps off the keys? Think of a bigger iPhone as a clamshell, with two touchscreens. There'd be no tactile feedback, but the ability to selectively modify key placements would go a long way to addressing the input problem. You could have a keyboard for normal use, one for gaming, one for coding, and so on.

Or maybe a marriage between the Optimus Maximus keyboard and a netbook is the best idea: no touchscreen, tactile feedback, and essentially the same functionality. Of course, the Optimus Maximus keyboard itself costs roughly three times as much as a normal netbook, so there's a tiny issue with pricing there.

If the rumors are to be believed, Apple will be entering the netbook market in a few months. Maybe. Since Dell already makes a fantastic Apple netbook for around $300, I'm really interested to see what this might be. My guess is that it'll be a larger iPod Touch with WWAN, maybe even in tablet form. But again, it's all about the interface. Apple's always been really adept at making usable interfaces and at taking a consumer market by storm (well, MP3 players and cell phones, anyway). We'll find out in a month or so.

In the meantime, I'm going to be using my netbook for netbook things, and my laptops for laptop things, and my workstation for workstation things. But then again, when whurley's "MacBook Cloud" idea is mainstream, we'll finally start to view laptops, desktops, and netbooks like the mere terminals they should be.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.