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The inspiration behind netbooks

Posted: 15 Dec 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Netbook? UMPC? organization One Laptop Per Child?

By Steve Hamm
The Tech Beat

Suddenly, Netbooks are all the rage. Turns out the UMPC (ultramobile) form factors were a bit too small and too expensive to make a mass market, but the Netbook is JUST RIGHT. I'm doing some comparison shopping right now since I'll likely need a machine for reporting out the next book I'm working on. (Involves spending some time in Africa) The MSI Wind and Asus Eee 901 look like the best bets, with prices in the $400 to $600 range.

This JUST RIGHT concept is fascinating. It's one of the lessons that has been learned over and over again in the 40-year history of portable computing. The industry thrashes around with a set of ideas and technologies and then hits on something. For outsiders, the hits may seem to come out of the blue. But for the inventors and product developers, they're hard won.

The Netbook concept has an interesting provenance. Clearly it was inspired in part by the One Laptop Per Child organization and its XO computer for children in poor countries. Another stimulus was Transmeta's bid to come up with a brand new processor architecture for small portable computerswhich scared Intel into coming up with the Atom chip.

Another formative factor was Project Hoover, an initiative dreamed up by Mark Anderson, head of Strategic News Service, one of the most successful high-tech newsletters. Back in 1997 he convened a meeting of some of the leaders in the PC industry in an effort to focus them on creating a new generation of devices for emerging nations. After a couple of days of discussions, people from Compaq, Dell, AMD, Intel, Stratus, etc. went on their ways, but Anderson kept pecking away at the ideaand publishing his thoughts. What emerged was the concept of the Carry Along PC, or CA PC.

The idea was to create devices that were stable, durable, portable, inexpensive and just the right size and weight. Minimum screen size: 9 inches across. Weight: about 2 pounds. Hey, that's a Netbook.

Anderson's prediction today: "It will be the best selling computer ever made because it's a great computer for the human body."

He has one quibble: the name. It suggests that these devices are just for Net browsing, e-mail, and IMing, when they're really smaller, lighter, less expensive notebook computers.

Wish I had squeezed the Hoover episode into the book.

- Steve Hamm is a BusinessWeek writer.

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