- The Washington Times - Monday, December 28, 2009

As the year-end “best and worst” lists roll out, may I offer a short take on what is at once the best technology of 2009 and also the year’s worst.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the “netbook.”

On the positive side, the netbook — a small, usually inexpensive, lightweight and ultraportable computer, generally running a flavor of Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating system, or Canonical’s Ubuntu Linux — is a truly utilitarian device. Drop one in your briefcase, backpack or shoulder bag, and you can take your computer just about anywhere the mood strikes. It’s the portable to have on the Metro (if you can get a seat), at the library, in a conference room, or even the dreaded middle seat on a transcontinental flight.

The more robust netbooks have good display screens, decent audio and a way to load and play back music, movies or videos. The devices generally lack optical drives, making the loading of new software and multimedia content difficult but not impossible. Keyboards are generally good, even for ham-fisted typists like me.

And you can’t beat the price. No self-respecting netbook would price itself above $1,000, and most cost one-half to one-third of that, depending on capabilities and the size of the display screen. That makes the device quite appealing for a road warrior as a second or even a third computer at home.

Most netbooks have the whole data-communications thing down pat. Every model I’ve seen has Wi-Fi built in — a delight to Starbucks denizens, I’m sure. But many also have a wireless data radio that will “talk” to the cellular networks of either Verizon or AT&T. The idea is to give customers a break on the price of the hardware in exchange for a user signing up for the carrier’s data service. It’s not always the best idea — you can achieve the same goal at lower costs, in some cases, in an “unbundled” situation — but it’s far from the worst thing out there.

So what’s not to like? Well, I’m not sold on the notion that the netbook is truly a good thing for computing, or for users. At its core, the netbook is really a wireless version of the old data “terminals” that were attached, via cables, to the hulking mainframe computers so prized by businesses. There was nothing wrong with this old model of computing; it just wasn’t very personal.

Leap ahead to netbooks. Because of their relatively limited memory and hard-disc storage, not to mention rock-bottom pricing, netbooks virtually beg to be connected to an online application such as Google Docs, the “cloud computing” version of an office applications suite. The cloud has its lures, but do you and I really want our lives “out there” as opposed to locked down on our systems? Where is the “cloud” version of Photoshop, or of a good CAD/CAM application?

Netbooks may also do to the computer market what some lower-priced goods have done in other markets: drive innovation toward the low end. Why would a company want to improve a 15-inch notebook computer when folks are making a beeline for netbooks? Going where the money is is not a crime, but it just might lead to neglect of other market segments.

When there’s a netbook that will take an optical drive (or, better still, load and play Blu-Ray discs), when there’s also a built-in digital card reader, when there’s reliable “cloud computing” programs for a wide range of needs, not just writing memos or creating spreadsheets, and when all of that is available at the price of today’s netbook hardware, then we might have something to truly celebrate.

Until that time, however, I’ll remain a tad skeptical.

E-mail mkellner@washingtontimes.com

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