19 December 2009

it's portable, but is it really mobile?

So far I've been talking about mobile phone mainly since they represent one of the largest segments of devices and because there is just so much that can be done to improve the situation, that you could easily spend your entire career just on that one portion of mobility.  However the mobile PC arena is just as fascinating especially with all the hype that Netbooks have received as well as the ill-named Smartbooks. 

First a small primer out there for those who don't follow the tech world as closely as I have...

Laptop/Notebook - A small PC with an LCD screen that can be folded up and carried around.  Since it's a PC it has an x86 architecture which means it's main processor is from Intel, AMD or in the rare case VIA.  The main distinguishing factor of this device is that it generally has both a hard disk drive (though it can be flash) and a built-in DVD drive with a screen that is usually 12.1" and above.  There are a few exceptions of relatively high priced devices that don't have an HDD and have a Flash memory instead and also don't have the DVD drive - e.g. the Macbook Air and the Dell Adamo. 

- Runs Windows
- Fast processor so not only runs Windows but can run it quickly (e.g. can play rich games)
- Less of a learning curve (works the same as every other Windows machine)

- Larger, bulkier and heavier than the other 2
- Well designed, lighter weight ones are $$$
- Runs Windows ;-)

Netbook - An even smaller PC with an LCD screen still running an x86 architecture which most definitely doesn't have a DVD drive.  Through some licensing agreements for Microsoft Windows and for Intel Atom chipsets these devices are not suppose to have screens that measure larger than 12.1" and generally have 10" screens with lower resolution.  The main key to this class of device is what the "tech geeks" and press indicate as underpowered processors.

- Light weight, easy to transport
- Can run Windows
- Less of a learning curve
- some have Integrated 3G/4G supports allows to be always on-line
- Cheap $$

- Small size keyboard on many is hard to use for some
- Slower processor makes it not suitable for some applications
- Need the bigger/bulkier battery to get extended usage on battery
- Requires more technical skills (e.g. watching DVDs w/o a DVD drive)
- Very few Windows PC applications or websites tailored for netbooks!
- Windows doesn't do a great job at optimizing itself for running in low power environments
- 3G/4G data plans are expensive!

Smartbook - Basically netbooks that don't have an x86 architecture but instead utilize an ARM (Qualcomm Snapdragon and Freescale iMX) or MIPs based chipset.  Basically these devices won't run Windows and utilize chips that are in the same family as those that inhabit Smartphones.   For an operating system, you'll generally run a stock Linux environment with a comprehensive shell (Wait! Didn't I talk about this yesterday?)  However there really aren't any of these out in the general market yet.

- Can have a complete customized and integrated experience
- Generally more power efficient than x86 netbooks
- Integrated 3G/4G support allows to be always on-line
- Really cheap $

- Small size keyboard on many is hard to use for some
- Requires constant connectivity to be really useful
- Very few websites tailored for smartbooks sized screens
- Need constant connectivity
- 3G/4G data plans are expensive!
- Local applications and services may be sparse

Here as with all technology, the question is what is it that you (the user) want to accomplish?  What is the environment in which you're going to use the technology?  What are the other technology resources you have? How much you're willing to spend? How many devices are you willing to have to meet your needs?  What is your tolerance for disposing one solution for another?

I think an example is in order to help...

A couple of years ago, I wanted to get something for my wife so that she would be able to keep up with her friends online, work on the finances for the school, do a little document editing etc.  In our home at the time, I had my work laptop, we had a desktop pc with dual monitors and we had another older computer that we let the kids play games on.  So why would we need something else?  I guess in all reality, she didn't really need another PC, but she did want something she could take with her when she was working at school or sitting on the couch and watching TV.  She also wanted something she could take with her when she went on vacation - thus wanting something capable of entertaining her during long flights. Finally since she's lugging around our 2 kids and all the assorted luggage, weight and size was a consideration.   Some might have argued that a 13 or 14" laptop would be a great choice since she'd have a full size keyboard, nice large monitor and a DVD drive where she could pop in a movie for herself or the kids.  (Have you recently tried to open up a large screen laptop in the back of coach class on a plane lately?)  However it was clear to me that ease of carry was clearly a more important aspect to her.  In addition, getting movies, tv shows and other entertainment media onto the hard drive of a device is ultimately more efficient than having to carry around a bunch of movies on DVDs.  And if you have the right tools, it's a relatively easy task, but it's not something that is mainstream (and then there is the legal question).   A couple of years ago, the Linux implementations on netbooks lacked truly rich shells (e.g. the Asus' EEE PC wasn't very deep) and my wife is relatively proficient in Windows so a netbook was the winner.  Today the netbook is pretty much constantly hooked into the power outlet by the couch and lots of couch surfing takes place :-)

Today however I might be ready to pick a different solution but they're not yet ready for primetime.  For a couch PC that isn't going to leave the home, a Linux solution that is connected online all the time via WiFi to get to rich media, surf the web and even use online office tools for when the need for productivity arises would be a good solution.  Thus a smartbook might really suffice for this task particularly if the rumors of a Chrome OS smartbook come true or some of the other OS ventures like Moblin truly integrate all the mainstream services onto the device (e.g. HTML 5, Flash, etc.)  However once you get out of the home, it's going to need a variety of tools in order to work offline.  Sure I'd love an ubiquitously connected device, but I also don't relish paying an arm and a leg particularly if I'm eventually paying that rate for multiple devices (data service for a phone, data service for my laptop, data service for my wife's phone and on it goes).

So a "smartbook" definitely has long term potential to make a difference particularly as more and more tools are available online via browsers.  After all, even Office now has a set of web tools for document creating, editing etc that has probably more functionality than the majority of users will ever use.  So really the change in the game is exactly what many have been trying to accomplish by moving the processing and content to the web.  Remember the "nc" or network computers?  Or how about all those mainframes and dumb clients from way back when?   Have we really gone full circle and thus smartbooks are really "dumb"books?

Of course the story is a bit more complicated since some of the processing is done locally and can be done offline, but the essence really is that the "cloud" is it.  While this vision is coming to pass, we really should learn the lesson of the PC itself and the power and need to act locally and always connected to the network - thus having the best of both worlds.   Bridging this divide elegantly is completely up for grabs -- who's up for the challenge?

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