Rise of the netbook

The evolution of mini-laptops

Netbook evolution

Netbooks are lightweight, low-cost laptops that provide access to e-mail, the Web, and not much else. Over the past decade, the netbook has gone from a fringe product to a valuable business tool.

Origins of the netbook

Psion trademarked the word "netBook" in Europe and the United States and in 1999 released what it called "the world's first fully Java-compliant mobile computer." Psion kept chugging along in 2003 with the netBook Pro, but the line has since been discontinued. The Psion netbook's failure hasn't stopped the company from trying to assert trademark privileges over use of the word.

Netbook with a social conscience

The nonprofit One Laptop Per Child Association formed in 2005 to create rugged, cheap Linux computers that could be supplied to the world's poorest children. OLPC's innovative design uses flash memory instead of a hard drive and strips out the high-powered functionality commonly found in laptops. OLPC helped inspire the future development of netbooks for business use, and is still pushing the envelope with new models using touchscreen displays.

Palm\'s short-lived netbook

Development of the Palm Foleo was announced in May 2007 and canceled a scant three months later. Had the product actually been released, Palm could have been considered one of the founders of the emerging netbook market. The Palm Foleo was intended as a companion device for smartphones, and included many features found in netbooks today, such as flash storage, instant start-up capability and Internet access.

The netbook craze begins

Asustek Computer, or Asus, helped kick off the netbook craze when it unveiled its first mini-laptop in mid-2007. Asus didn't even use the word "netbook" when it introduced the Eee PC , at a shockingly low price of $199. Asus compared the Eee to the Nintendo Wii, calling it the "world's easiest PC." Features such as 2GB of flash storage, a quick bootup, Internet connectivity and video VoIP calls helped pave the way for a highly successful line of netbook products.

Netbooks enter the cloud

The vendor Everex challenged Asus with the "Cloudbook" in 2008, a $399 netbook featuring the Ubuntu OS and a 30GB hard disk drive. (Everex has since been acquired by Newmarket Technology.)

MSI Wind

In mid-2008 Micro-Star International unveiled the MSI Wind (standing for Wi-Fi network device). Boasting hard disk drives of up to 160GB and 1GB of DRAM, the Wind gave users a 10-inch screen, significantly larger than the Cloudbook.

Netbook vs. Laptop: Which one is right for you

Intel, which makes processors for netbooks, registered the domain netbook.com in September 2008. The link redirects to an Intel site which poses the question " Netbook vs. Laptop: Which one is right for you? " While a netbook is ideal for e-mail and social networking, it is not the device of choice for watching HD movies or running complex office software, Intel notes.

Dell and HP minis

Netbook momentum picked up in late '08 with Dell's Inspiron Mini Series and HP's Mini 1000 devices. Both Dell and HP Minis offer keyboard, touchpad and microphone input, and a choice between Windows XP and Linux.

Cream of the crop

The three best netbooks available today, according to PC World , are the Asus Eee PC 1000HE, the Acer Aspire ONE AOD150, and the Lenovo Ideapad S10. The current Asus model was lauded for its slimmed-down size, improvements to everything from the keyboard to the CPU, and its price of $400 or less.

What is the future of netbooks?

Expect lots of innovation in the netbook market over the next year, with some hits and some misses. Google's Android operating system is coming to netbooks, but will face stiff competition from Windows and other versions of Linux. Speculation is rampant that Apple will build its own netbook. In general expect longer battery lives, more durable designs and growing differentiation between netbooks and traditional notebook PCs.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.