A while back I was thinking about this whole cell phone, PDA, laptop, desktop thing with computers where we have stuff in different form factors which we use in different ways. At the time I was thinking about what size laptop to buy, but it got me thinking about how many devices we need and where they should fall on the size/power spectrum.
This lead me to my current thinking which is that there are loosely 3 classes of computers (at least for consumers) and that you are basically forced to compete with everything in your class. They are pocketable, backpackable, and stationary. That is to say that there’s little to be gained by shrinking the size of laptop once it fits comfortably in my backpack unless you’re going to make it small enough to fit in my pocket.
So, that says, that my phone, my palm, my iPod (or walkman/discman if you go back) were all basically competing with each other. As a consequence, it would have been relatively easy to predict that these devices would converge into things like the Treo and iPhone which combine these features.
At the next level, we have backpackable objects. These include laptops, most e-readers, and the new entry of netbooks. Interestingly, my logic says that these devices are competing with each other and will really have to converge in some way. That is, netbooks, despite being hot, really don’t offer a truly new form of computer, but simply a new (and possibly useful) trade-off in the power/battery life/price space. It may be that they drag the price and performance of the average backpackable computer down and push it’s battery life up, but these aren’t revolutionary devices.
This jives with my experience that most people I know buying netbooks are doing so because either they didn’t have a laptop before, they had a laptop they didn’t like or no laptop at all. I see a large number of people who had old, big, heavy windows laptops getting netbooks, which is basically people trading an object which isn’t really backpackable for a backpackable one. An unrelated, but relevant fact is that windows works terribly as an operating system for laptops as it handles sleep in an atrocious fashion, meaning that for many people their netbook is the first non-windows laptop which thus actually works like a laptop should with fast-sleep and fast-resume.
The last category is stationary computers, which for consumers basically means desktops. There are other things, like media servers and the like, but for the most part we mean desktops. Here things are kind of interesting for a couple of reasons. First, desktops seem to actually be losing to laptops, which makes sense because while backpackable objects don’t necessarily have to compete with stationary ones, your stationary computer does have to justify it’s existence by providing some features which your backpackable computer doesn’t. In that sense, laptops have really been able to successfully compete with desktops for the last few years. Maybe netbooks are simply the realigning of backpackable class and will, in fact, increase the difference between backpackable and stationary computers again.