posted by Thom Holwerda on Tue 13th Jan 2009 22:37 UTC
IconWhile we're on the subject of netbooks today, I ran across a story by Ars Technica's Erica Sadun, who writes for Ars' Infinite Loop (Apple) section. She poses that Apple already sells a netbook: the iPod Touch and the iPhone. I've heard many people make this claim before (including Steve Jobs himself), but I find it very hard to see the iPod Touch and the iPhone as netbooks.

There are various definitions out there when it comes to the term netbook. Shaun chooses the one handled by Best Buy, the large US retailer. "A netbook is a streamlined mobile device designed for the Internet, so you can stay connected on the go. Get up-to-date news, the latest scores and weather information, access your e-mail and social networking sites, and enjoy digital videos, photos and music. Netbooks may look like laptops, but they don't have the full capabilities of a computer. Instead, a netbook specializes in mobility and the Web, so it's great for travel or as a supplement to your main PC." In her story, Shaun took out the bit about netbooks looking like laptops, but okay. She says that the iPhone/Touch meet these criteria.

She may have a point, but that's just one definition of a netbook, and if you look around the Best Buy netbook section, you'll see that the devices listed there are all just small laptops anyway. A definition that I personally find much more accurate is the one handled by Wikipedia, which reads: "A netbook is a light-weight, low-cost, energy-efficient, highly portable laptop that achieves these parameters by offering fewer features, less processing power and reduced ability to run resource-intensive operating systems (e.g., Windows Vista). Suitable for web browsing, email, and general purpose applications, netbooks are targeted increasingly at users accessing web-based applications (also known as Cloud computing) - which require a less powerful client computer."

As you can see, both definitions actually stress the fact that we're still talking about laptops - small laptops maybe, but laptops nonetheless. I think this is what sets the netbook apart from other mobile devices, such as mobile phones and mobile internet devices. A netbook is a scaled-down laptop - the iPhone is scaled-up smartphone.

The things that set the iPhone and iPod Touch apart from the netbook are quite numerous. Most obviously, they lack a proper keyboard. No matter how iPhone users boast about the efficiency of the on-screen keyboard, it can never be as effective as a real keyboard. Additionally, it covers a part of the already small screen (compared to 9"-10" netbooks, that is). Another problem is the small screen itself, for which websites aren't designed. The iPhone's browser is quite gracious and effective at mitigating this problem, but the experience it offers simply cannot compare favourably to browsing the web on a netbook. As a final hardware issue, netbooks powered by an Intel Atom processor, and carrying 1GB-1.5GB of RAM blow the iPhone out of the water when it comes to performance.

There are also many software issues that set the iPhone/Touch apart from a proper netbook. For instance, the iPhone cannot multitask. More importantly, however, the iPhone lacks Flash and Java. Even though these technologies might not be liked by many of us OSNews readers (me included), it's hard to deny the fact that they have become an integral part of the web experience. Many websites implement Flash video, and the iPhone can't handle this. The full web - sure, except for Flash and Java content. The netbook doesn't suffer from this problem at all: you really get the full web.

Don't get me wrong, though: the iPhone and the Touch are magnificent devices in their own right. The have blown away the competition, and raised the bar for all smartphones out there. However, that doesn't mean we should overestimate the capabilities of these devices. If I were to make a list of portable computing devices, starting with least powerful, and ending with most powerful, this is what I would end up with:

Feature phone - smartphone - MID - netbook - ultra-portable laptop (MacBook Air, etc.) - normal laptop.

As far as I'm concerned, the iPhone/Touch stand somewhere in between the smartphone and the MID.

The iPhone and Touch are magnificent devices, but let's remain reasonable, shall we?

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