I started writing this post back in May, but got sidetracked and never finished it, partly because it sounded like sour grapes from someone who has used a netbook and didn’t like the user experience. The thing is, I don’t use a netbook, never wanted to use one, and the few times I have seen them I didn’t like the user experience. That’s the real reason I didn’t finish the post—I didn’t want to comment on something I didn’t know well.

[Note: If this looks familiar, I am plagiarizing myself syndicating from my other blog at MontaVista]

It looks like I’m not the only one. Jason Hiner of TechRepublic today announced the death of the netbook on his blog. While I think death may be a little premature to declare, I think doom is certain called for, despite Larry Dignan’s rebuttal on ZDnet. And I don’t want to leave out Laptop Magazine’s Mark Spoonauer, who also declares death and even provides a headstone.

The thing is, I really want to like netbooks. They would solve many problems in my life while introducing few others. I don’t mind small screens, can cope with small keyboards for a limited time, and I know precisely which apps require which hardware to run effectively. I even had a “netbook” once, a little Psion that fit my pocket, but I eventually abandoned it. What I don’t want is:

  1. yet another device to feed—laptop and (non-smart) cell phone are plenty, thanks
  2. a new algorithm for syncing local data, as not everything lives in the cloud (yet)(thankfully)
  3. any device that solves 75% of a problem, yet requires 110% of my personal budget and replicates a device I already have (see #1)

Furthermore, I don’t think they are too expensive for what they are. Dropping prices will not sell more netbooks. Increasing performance will not sell more, either. Actually, I can’t think of a single thing that would cause me to augment my existing stable of computing power with yet another device, and that is the rub.

I am exactly the target market for netbooks, yet I don’t want one. That is why they will fail. There are a lot of people like me out there. We are already glutted with devices. Netbooks solve the same problems as notebooks, but at a higher price and with fewer options and lower performance. Smallness on its own is not a feature that grabs me unless it gets small enough that I can put it in my pocket.

All of this is based on my opinion. I am not presenting a very logical argument here because the market is not a logical beast. It is capricious and fickle, which is precisely why good ideas very often fail. To understand it, the logical thinker must shelve the logic and think like a fickle beast. The cost of failure is too high to depend on logic in a capricious world.

That being said, there are logical arguments, and Jason Hiner makes them quite well. The “that’s neat” response is not a long-term market driver. We encountered this at Transmeta back in 1999 trying to come up with a reference design for tablets—we called them “webpads”, and they bear a marked resemblance to today’s e-book readers, but they never took off (they were also far too expensive). For that matter, I think it remains to be seen whether e-book readers will take off, though as a device built to improve a specific user experience by using a people-friendly interface—e-ink in this case—they stand a good chance.

What I think might fit the sweet spot a little more closely is something like Dell’s new Latitude ON, which embeds a netbook-ish device inside a laptop. The tiny ARM-powered board shares keyboard, screen, and network connection and surfs and emails for 18 hours or more, and if I want more horsepower I can just push a button to boot or wake up the full laptop. That is a compromise I can live with. *

So, kudos to the netbook folks for trying. But what about MIDs? Are they in the same boat? I think that remains to be seen—the iTouch and Nokia N800 devices have certainly been popular among my geeky friends, but I have yet to see one in use that isn’t shadowed by the propeller on the user’s hat. It’s the “that’s neat” response again. I want to want one, but in reality I can’t justify it to my bank account or to my daily workflow. My immediate feeling is that the next generation of smartphones—especially the Motorola Droid—will make MIDs obsolete, but this will only happen in the US if they can break away from the usage models dominated by the carriers. The total cost of ownership is far, far too high. (See Droid and other smartphones compared by TCO.)

Here’s yet another angle: what is the logical difference between a MID that can read e-books, and an e-book reader that can browse the web? How about MID vs. smartphone? Which one would you buy, and why? Don’t be afraid to be illogical and capricious.

The main takeaway from all of this is that making a market in personal electronics is hard, and it is not getting easier or more obvious as technology improves. Making a market means building a product that provides a 100% solution for enough buyers to justify the cost of development, period. If that market is small or unsustainable, then it’s not a revolution, it’s a fad.

Code safely out there.

* Full disclosure: As it has now been officially announced, I can proudly say that MontaVista Montabello is running the Latitude ON, and that I helped work on the project. Actually I already said it, but now I can say it.