Seybold's take: Will netbooks replace laptops?

The computer world and the wireless world are colliding, though they seem to be in parallel when it comes to introducing new technologies. First there are the rumors, then there is the hype, then there are the products. Only a few products (such as the iPhone and the  BlackBerry) live up to their hype. Even good, solid products are usually over-marketed before reaching store shelves.

Enter netbooks. It is difficult to trace where the idea for netbooks came from; there have been similar products introduced with little or no success several times since the early 1990s. Microsoft pushed hard to convince many vendors to build a small and light instant-on notebook for executives with some storage but not much. Using Windows CE as a base, these devices were built by HP, Dell, Compaq and others and none of them sold well. Now we have high-speed wireless data services and everyone is enthralled with "cloud computing," so netbooks should be the next wave of products expected to really sell well.

But will they replace a laptop for travel? It would be nice if they would, because they are a lot smaller and lighter, making them easier to carry around. They have broadband, WiFi and Bluetooth, some have solid state storage, some have hard drives, and they are all less expensive than a notebook computer. Could I get by with my BlackBerry, iPhone or other smartphone and not carry either a note or netbook? Or if I am accustomed to carrying a laptop, what can I give up in order to switch to a netbook?

The first thing I gain in my briefcase is space, so I have room to carry other things with me. And at less than three pounds, netbooks are a lot lighter than many notebooks. But do they provide me with enough of what I need on the road? I am preparing to take my first trip with a netbook and just finished loading Office 2007 on it (without the applications I don't use to preserve as much space as I can on my 60 GB hard drive). Next, using my sync program, I synchronized my documents with my desktop (okay, I know, I am supposed to keep them in the cloud but I am not yet that trusting). Then I set up my Outlook so I should be ready to go. Of course, in order to load Office 2007, I had to buy a USB CD drive and plug it in, which wasn't a big deal but did add to the cost.

While I was loading the applications over my WiFi network, I thought it would be nice to be able to connect the netbook to a wired Ethernet cable when I travel. Some hotels don't have WiFi, only wired Ethernet, and sometimes inside a room, for example, I don't have enough 3G broadband signal and the data speed is slow. But there is no external Ethernet connection on my netbook, so I did some digging and found an Ethernet to USB converter for $15 on the Internet, which will fix that problem (but it's another thing I have to remember to take with me).

Next, and perhaps my biggest problem so far, is that I give a lot of PowerPoint presentations and I am now limited to a Bluetooth or USB connection (most older projectors want a plain old VGA cable between the netbook and the projector). So I again went to the Internet and I found several USB to VGA adaptors, all of which are bulky and expensive, so scratch that idea. Next, I ran a battery test. The battery is supposed to last about three hours, but with EV-DO turned on I had barely two hours. I will run the test again with all the wireless shut off and see if that makes a difference.

I will be taking my netbook with me on my next few trips and afterward I will be in a better position to determine if I will be able to replace my full-blown notebook with the netbook. The keyboard is smaller because of the size of the system, and since I am a fast touch-typist, I hope that won't slow me down. But again, a few road trips will tell the tale.

Is there a netbook in your future? I think that will depend on whether you are a work creator or if you make use of information available to you via the Internet or your corporate database. If you create work while traveling, I suspect you will remain a notebook customer. But if email and access is all you need, a netbook (or smartbook later this year) could be the right type of device for you.

Andrew Seybold is an authority on technology and trends shaping the world of wireless mobility. A respected analyst, consultant, commentator, author and active participant in industry trade organizations, his views have influenced strategies and shaped initiatives for telecom, mobile computing and wireless industry leaders worldwide. www.andrewseybold.com

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