The world is changing in front of our eyes again. Let me give you a preview of some technology that is going to change the computing landscape permanently – and do it before the end of 2009. This is a big deal! Take a minute to read this – it will help you understand what’s happening when things start to move quickly this fall.

netbook1 Maybe you’ve already seen lines of “netbooks” at Best Buy, or read some of the articles about the small new devices. Manufacturers are falling all over themselves to release netbooks – Dell has more models coming than we can keep track of, and the market is full of the little devices on the retail shelves from HP and Samsung and Asus and many more.

A netbook is a small notebook computer. Picture something that’s the width of a hardcover book, perhaps a little taller, and only an inch thick, weighing well under three pounds. The screen is 10 inches diagonally, displaying 1024×600 graphics that make everything look small to baby boomer eyes. The keyboard is a little squashed (usually 92% of normal), with no room for function keys or any other extra keys. There’s no CD/DVD drive but wireless adapters and webcams are built in.Typically they look like they’re made out of cheap materials, although some of them are turning up with interesting colors and designs. Here’s an article by David Pogue describing some of the best ones on the market now.

 A netbook costs $350-$500. Keep that in mind as you keep reading. Everything turns on that price.

There are cosmetic differences and modest differences in the features, but virtually every netbook on the market has identical specs. They’re built on underpowered Intel processors and come with 512Mb or 1Gb of memory and a slow 160Gb hard drive. Microsoft sells Windows XP Home Edition to the manufacturers really cheaply, so it has become the standard operating system. (A year ago it looked like netbooks would be sold with Linux, presumably for a cost advantage, but people only wanted familiar Windows XP and it now completely dominates the market.)

A small lightweight notebook for $400 – the appeal is obvious! Think how much of your life at a computer now is spent in your Internet browser. Webmail or web based access to Outlook takes care of email for many people. If a wireless Internet connection is available, a remarkable number of things can be done without sitting down at a desktop computer.

Before you rush out to the store, there’s one more thing you need to know. At the moment, you don’t want a netbook. They’re slow. Trying to run Internet Explorer on them is frustrating and trying to install and run any other programs is impossible. Everything about the current crop of netbooks is a compromise.

So now let’s look about six months down the road.

This picture represents the first piece of the earthquake that is about to shake the world.


Nvidia is the first company to show off the technology that will power the next generation of netbooks. That little box holds Nvidia’s Ion platform, with lots more processor power than the current wimpy Intel Atom processors, plus incredibly powerful graphics to supplement the Intel Atom processors – all in a container small enough for a new world of hand-sized devices, netbooks and much, much more. Ion can run a computer in style – it will handle your office applications, it will do photo editing, it will display full high-definition 1080p video on a home theater screen, it will play games. The first devices built on this platform will be released during the second quarter of 2009 and you can expect a flood of them by fall.

Intel is not standing still, although it looked a little surprised by Nvidia’s announcement last week and hasn’t said much except, “We’ve got cool stuff coming too, you just wait and see!” And it probably does. Nvidia isn’t going to own this space, it just happened to issue the first press release.

Microsoft will supply the second piece of this seismic shift. The next generation of netbooks will run a version of Windows 7 (the upcoming successor to Vista) that is optimized for smaller, lower powered computers. I expect that it will run quickly and efficiently. It will do a better job than WinXP of optimizing battery life, as well as looking better on a small screen. There are rumors that Apple will release its own netbook (and it’s a natural fit for Apple), but no details yet.

There’s no way to be sure but there is already speculation that the price of a powerful netbook running Windows 7 will be less than the current prices.

There are going to be gazillions of these out there. You’ll have one. I’ll have one. Students – good lord, students! Can you imagine?

Starting to get the idea? Netbooks are going to be littering your offices and homes and dorms. I’m a bit dizzy trying to guess how that will affect us – certainly there will be more demand for remote access to desktop computers for businesspeople and more people moving files online or syncing them among their computers, but that might only be the beginning. You thought things were changing fast in the last few years? Things are about to move very quickly indeed.

[edit 1:30am after reading more about Nvidia Ion, which is built on Intel’s current line of Atom processors.]

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