Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Feedback on Netbooks & Mobile Computing

Before our trip to China, I wrote about the 9" Asus Eee PC netbook that I would be taking to assist with blogging. Having discussed the product in ITMgmt class in the Spring'09 semester, I got a good chance to experience the difference between a netbook and a full-blown laptop.

Here's my thoughts...

Size & Weight - Considering that I carried this around in my backpack for 14 days, the weight and form-factor were perfect. The keyboard took me a few days to master, and it helped that I'm a two fingered typist. My roommate Gregg had a difficult time on the keyboard using traditional typing techniques. The screen size is obviously smaller, but this tradeoff was more than acceptable for the weight.

Usability & Mobility - I opted for the Linux version, instead of the Windows version, to get the true netbook experience. I wanted to focus on using applications that reside in the cloud, as opposed to local apps (MS-Office, etc.). Most of the applications I needed (Firefox, Skype, etc.) come pre-loaded on the machine, and they worked perfectly. Internet from the hotel rooms was decent, not exceptional, which sort of surprised me. What I didn't find much of was free WiFi access in coffee-shops, and netbook did not have any built-in 3G access, so the mobility aspects weren't something I could experience. WiFi worked fine at home in the states, so I'll give that a pass.

Cons - For the most part, it's a very useable machine and a great mobile computing device. But the one thing I truly disliked was the interaction with the mouse and trackpad. It was very inconsistent (mouse and finger-swipe movements) and the click-button was too stiff and very loud. The noise isn't that big a problem, except in quiet rooms. I think I woke up my roommate several times when I'd get up to write in the morning.

While the netbook seemed to be a decent platform for the trip, I eventually had to compare to using my iPhone. It was somewhat of a difficult comparison in China because the international data rate from AT&T were obscene (20Mb for $20). The netbook had the storage I needed to download picture and videos, and supported Flash for applications that required it. But if I could had gotten US rates for 3G data access, I think I could have been just as happy using my iPhone for all my mobile computing except for data storage.

Overall, mobile computing has come a long way in just a few years, with netbooks beginning to fill a niche in size, weight and functionality. The iPhone fills another niche, and I think there may still be room for an in-between form factor (or a storage add-on to the iPhone). I still had to carry my FlipVideo and others used their digital cameras, so the all-in-one mobile device still doesn't exist. And of course, ubiquitous & cost-effective mobile bandwidth still has a little way to go.

The Chinese seem to do everything from their mobile phone, so I wouldn't be against that form factor. A world without wires is critical, and the instant reponse times possible with a phone-like device make business in China move at the pace it does. Innovation in this area still has a alot of potential to drive huge amount of revenues and business opportunities.

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