Starbucks Sundays – Netbooks & the incredible shrinking man

This post isn’t going to be hugely competitive in nature, but bear with my little rant and we’ll get there in the end… I promise!

Last Saturday I had to venture down to that little Aladdin’s cave of technology treasures, Sim Lim Square, to pick up a coaxial cable. For any of you who have visited Singapore, it’s easily a geek’s wet dream. Dozens of IT and gadget shops all crammed together in one hell of a fire-trap. PCs, GPSs, MP3 players, you name it.

One growing trend as we’ve seen from the recently held Computex is the growth of the “Netbook” or Ultra Mobile PC market. Driven by one part Linux, one part XP, and a huge dose of affordability, these little gems are starting to pop up faster than a field of wild mushrooms after a storm. I’m very interested in getting on of these to replace my aging desktop (which is still running amazingly well on XP after 5 years), primarily to do some blogging and downtime webwork at the local Starbucks.

I ventured around the nooks and crannies of Sim Lim and managed to spend quite a lot of quality time with several models, namely:

  • Asus eee PC, both the eee PC 8G and the new eee PC 900 (with the spanky 8.9 inch display) in both XP and Linux flavours.
  • HP Mini-Note (Vista version).
  • Everex Cloudbook (XP version)

cloudbook_pr 4-8-08-hp

product_4087 asus-eee-pc-900-avialable

Now all of these have one thing in common, diminutive size. Small enough to be crammed into a school backpack, handbag or dare I say, manbag (I’d state for the record that if and when that happens to me it will be referred to as a “courier bag”, thank you for asking). Apart from that they all hit the web through WiFi and all have keyboards and screens, but that’s about where the similarities end.

There is a lot of noise around the blogosphere regarding what Operating System is being installed on these machines. Will this be a wedge for pushing Linux into the mass-market? Microsoft’s announcements around extending XP’s life on “netbooks” is another market consideration.

While this is all interesting from a software perspective, and don’t get me wrong, I think price and OS will play a big part in what machine people buy, but I firmly believe there’s a missing factor in the vast majority of estimates about how well these machines will perform.

THE KEYBOARD!

I wouldn’t say that my hands are the world’s largest (9 years of soccer goal keeping made we aware that I have a size 10.5 hand). Despite that, I brought up the notepad or word processor on each machine I found vastly differing levels of usability for typing out anything longer than a sentence.

Currently the competitive differentiators for these machines are price, screen size, battery and physical size. In reality this means a cheaper price is better, a bigger screen is better (with respect to the machines footprint) and the smaller the machine is (thickness, weight and dimensions) the better. In none of the reviews I have read does the keyboard become key differentiator. This strikes me as being a bit strange. Like saying you could buy the fastest, best handling car, but you can only drive it in a straight line because the steering is so poor.  I don’t see HP pushing the keyboard as a differentiator (and I think the Mini-Note’s keyboard is better than an iBooks).

This raises the question of how do you change people’s perceptions to focus on non-traditional differentiators?

  • HP could focus the power of blog reviews to get more and more people talking about the keyboard first and foremost.
  • Advertising could focus on usability rather than just being a “toy”.
  • Good old fashioned benchmarking with the audiences that matter (students) on ease of use. (Try going to University and banging out that final assessment on tiny keys).

These are just a couple. I’m sure HP could think of dozens more. Shifting the game away from speeds and feeds and onto usability. On the other hand, if you were Asus or Everex you’d be inclined to continue to push the lower cost – however, that lower cost may come at the expense of future users or repeat buyers. However, at that stage they’d have the money and customer base to focus on other aspects of the UMPC market.

UPDATE:

I’d like to be able to claim full responsibility for the latest ASUS annoucnement, but I’m guessing they have seen this as an area of potential customer negativity. HP – gotta be faster!

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