Last week, Apple again repeated its claim that the iPhone and iPod Touch are capable of filling the netbook niche. They also claimed that netbooks can barely be called personal computers. Both of these statements are complete and utter nonsense, but instead of writing down some high-level definition of what a netbook is, I decided to simply write down all the things I do with my netbook that the iPhone/iPod Touch cannot do to make the difference between the two that much more tangible.
I can upgrade the hardware in my netbook. It might not be easy in the first generation Aspire One, but you can add additional memory, replace the hard drive, upgrade the battery to a 6 cell, and/or replace the wireless card on just about any netbook. This is one of the defining differences, and ensures that you can use your netbook for more power-intensive tasks.
I can connect whatever device I want to my netbook. As it’s a PC, it uses standard connectors such as VGA and USB, and has standard card slots for dirt-cheap SD cards. This means that I can use it with whatever device I desire, and not just the artificially price-inflated Apple-approved ones.
I can install whatever operating system I want on my netbook. I started out with Linpus, went to Ubuntu, tried Windows XP, moved to Vista, and now I’ve been using Windows 7 on it ever since the beta was released (and this past weekend I upgraded it to the Windows 7 RC). I can even multiboot, or install Mac OS X if I wanted to go through the trouble.
I can install whatever software I want. Whether I use Windows, Linux, or Mac OS X, I am free to install the software I want and/or need, without being limited by whatever Apple allows me to install. If I want an application to shake babies, I should be able to get one. It’s my computer.
I can use my netbook for data entry. Despite claims to the contrary, most netbooks are perfectly fine for typing-related tasks. I can stack the tips of my index and middle fingers on top of one another, and still press a key on my Aspire One’s keyboard without touching or activating any adjacent keys (I do have small hands, though). Sure, the keyboard layout might require some training, but that’s true for any keyboard.
If you ever see an OSNews item posted between 01:00 and 09:00 CET, it was most likely written on my netbook. I also regularly work on university stuff on the netbook.
Speaking of the keyboard, I always find it quite entertaining that some people criticise netbook keyboards, and then go on and claim that the iPhone/Touch is a good netbook equivalent. Even though the iPhone’s keyboard is miles ahead of other touchscreen keyboards, it doesn’t hold a candle to any “real” keyboard – not even the tiny QWERTY one on my Nokia E71.
I can browse the full web on my netbook. While the iPhone has a decent mobile browser – especially compared to what the competition has to offer – it’s nowhere near a match for full browsers like Firefox, Chrome, or the normal Safari. Even when using WiFi, scrolling usually reveals empty blocks that still need to be loaded, zooming in or out leaves the fonts all fuzzy for a while, it often fails to remember zoom levels when going back and forth, tapping small links is an exercise in frustration, and it doesn’t come with Flash or Java. While I’d rather not use both of those technologies, they have become an integral part of the web (YouTube, Dumpert.nl, Vimeo, etc.). And of course, actually doing something on the web (which often requires text input, like commenting or making items for OSNews) is virtually impossible because of the lack of a real keyboard.
I can play whatever media I want on my netbook. By installing the K-Lite Codec pack and the light versions of the Real and QuickTime codecs, I can play virtually every audio and video file under the sun using Windows Media Player or VLC. If Linux is your thing, the same applies – you can enable support for whatever codec you want. Not so much on the iPhone.
I can transfer content onto my netbook without being tied to the dreadful iTunes program. Since it’s a standard PC, it integrates into any home network you might have, or you can just use USB sticks or SD cards to transfer content. You’re not tied to whatever one company forces you to use.
I can easily connect any display/keyboard/mouse combination to my netbook, and use it as a normal desktop machine when my other machines are being upgraded hard or software-wise, so that I can continue to work on OSNews even when all my other machines are in surgery.
I can integrate my netbook into any network I might have set up at my home. Before I go to sleep, I use my netbook as a device to watch TV series and films stored on a shared drive on my media centre PC. Thanks to HomeGroup in Windows 7, this has become dead easy, but of course any operating system allows you to do the same.
I’m sure there are countless other things that you can do with a netbook that are impossible with an iPhone or iPod Touch. This is just a selection of all the things I do, or have done, with my netbook. A netbook isn’t perfect, and for me, it cannot replace my main desktop or media centre – but it did replace my normal notebook. A few weeks after I bought my Aspire One, I realised I completely abandoned my 15.4″ PowerBook G4 (1.25Ghz) in favour of the One. I sold the PowerBook shortly afterwards.
Freedom is key
As you can see, the key to why an iPhone is nowhere near a netbook is because a netbook is a standard PC, which means you get all the freedom that has become vital to the PC world. An iPhone is not a netbook because it doesn’t come even close to the amount of freedom a normal PC (and thus a netbook) can offer you.
That is not to say the iPhone and the iPod Touch are crappy devices – quite the contrary actually. The iPhone is probably the best smartphone out there, and redefined the concept for years to come, and raised the bar considerably for the competition. In their home turfs, the two devices reign supreme.
Apple doesn’t have a netbook offering at this point, and this means they are currently not part of one of the hottest segments of the market. There may have been vague reports of netbook makers not meeting sales expectations, but fact of the matter is that they are selling like hotcakes.
Apple wants to have its cake and it too: they want to stay away from the netbook market because it’s not good for their margins, yet at the same time, they want to be part of the netbook market by claiming the iPhone/Touch can fill the same niche. However, as you can see, a netbook allows you to do so much more than those two devices.
Sure, it could very well be that not everyone uses their netbook in the way that I do – but that’s not the point. The point is that you can use a netbook to do all those things, while you can not use an iPhone/Touch to do those things. Calling an iPhone a netbook is like slapping a horn on a unicycle and calling it a car because it can also get you from A to B, “what most people want out of a car”.
I can understand Apple itself making these claims; they are a company after all, and want a piece of this popular market segment. However, I would expect the critical OSNews crowd to see these claims for what they really are, instead of just accepting them at face value without any critical thinking.