Netbook Lust

I found out today what they are called, these tiny wireless laptops I've seen proliferating in the study carrels of the library: netbooks, also called sub or mini-notebooks.

Facing the prospect of being offline for five days during our upcoming trip to NYC, I began to want one. I decided to find out more about them.

Several things surprised me. Some of them have small solid-state drives, two or more gigs in capacity, rather than conventional, spinning hard-drives, making them less fragile than other portables. Many of them have versions of Linux installed, rather than Microsoft Windows.

CompUSA has a video review of the new Asus Eee PC 4G Surf that gives you an idea of what the Xandros Linux + KDE desktop looks like.

I installed and used Linux in 1999 in graduate school, when it was still rather daunting. I will never forget the rock-solid connectivity I had with Linux in those 56k dial-up days, when I was taking distance-learning courses.

This thing is amazing. You buy it, turn it on, and it works. It's got Open Office installed, the Sun Microsystems open source office suite, which I use at home in the form of IBM's Lotus Symphony. But these little machines are ideal not for offline, client-side work, but for cloud computing.

The Internet has matured to the point where the cloud network is a reality now. You can trust Google and other "Web 2.0" networks such as YouTube to store your work for you. We are currently offering a course on how to use Google Docs at the library. You may no longer need a big hard drive for file storage and client software on a mobile computer.

That is what excites me about netbooks for public-access computing, and that is surely why I am seeing so many of them at the library. It is easy to forget that millions of people do not have jobs that come with a desk and a networked PC. Our public-access PC's and our wireless network at the library are used by travelers, by students, and by people who are unable to afford and/or to set up an Internet PC at home. They use web-mail exclusively. They keep their files on floppies, CD's and Flash drives. We should make sure that our patrons know about netbooks as an option, if they are dissatisfied with the access they are getting with the library's public-access PC's.

The downside I see is that users who are not tech-savvy may not understand that the ubiquitous Windows-compatible programs available online will not work with a Linux netbook. One hopes that sales staff will make that clear.

There are Windows XP-based netbooks as well, but this kind of machine cannot hope to reproduce all the features of a full-sized laptop, and some buyers are bound to be disappointed. Already, as more manufacturers enter the netbook space, you can see feature creep: larger screens, more storage.

Larry Dignan at ZDNet said back in June that he thought $200 was about the right price point, and I have to agree. They are going for around $400+- now. At $200 for a stripped-down, dedicated "cloud machine", I would probably be taking one with me to NYC. He predicts a netbook/smartphone war, but I am not so sure. I think that the two appeal to different groups of users.

But I don't really fit the profile for a netbook user. We have a conventional network at the library. I can access my files anywhere within the library system. I don't take work home much, where I have a decent desktop PC with broadband cable access. I only travel a few times a year.

So, no netbook for me. If only I were younger, poorer, and renting!

Honest Tea bottle cap oracle:
"Even if I knew tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree."

-MLK Jr.

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