Sunday, November 30, 2008

The rise of the Netbook

While walking in Media Markt's laptop aisle yesterday I was surprised to see the number of mini laptops (Asus EEPC, Acer Aspire 1, Toshiba netbook etc.) in the €299-500 price range. Interestingly, some of them are being sold like cellphones - with a price tag of just 1 Euro with a 2 year "3G data plan". The data plan costs 37 Euros, and probably gives customers a few GB of bandwidth a month.

So adopters get to carry their *free* netbook and Internet connection anywhere, without paying outrageous Wifi hotspot/hotel Internet charges. Perhaps in a few months this Netbook offer will spur many to switch to 3G Internet and give up on tethered Internet (cable, DSL) entirely. Are we looking at this cannibalization in the next couple of years? Low cost cellphones cannibalized fixed line telephone users. Can netbooks with 3G data plans cannibalize tethered DSL?

It all depends on the service quality of 3G data vs. DSL. Now 3G data can seldom serve more than 100s of kbps versus the multiple mbps of DSL connections. But I hazard that there is a sizeable market segment to whom the mobility (and free netbook) will appeal more than blitzy Internet connections.

Another issue will be the scalability of 3G data - 3G infrastructure has some fundamental bandwidth limits - which make a mass deployment in dense areas problematic. There is LTE, the next generation of cellular wireless networks that promises much more bandwidth, but its deployment is only planned over the next decade. Perhaps mass data demand over wireless will speed things up for LTE (or WiMAX).

The multi-person home tethered service is probably safe from wireless 3G data for now. Splitting 3G bandwidth is certainly possible via Internet sharing or a router that accepts a 3G data card and then wifis the bandwidth to multiple home PCs, but the slow speed will be an issue for demanding applications like online video, gaming, etc. 3G data is still a 'midband' service. Moreover, netbooks are difficult to use with their small screens and cramped keyboards. Presently deployed laptops and desktops are certainly more comfortable (minus their limited mobility).

The Netbooks' rise is absolutely remarkable. A couple of years ago MIT's OLPC project was the seed of the idea to create cheap affordable laptops for school children in developing countries. Then Intel threw in its own school laptop competitor. Asus stole the commercial show with its EEPC 701. Intel's spectacular strategy of creating the low-power Atom processor created a captive netbook market for Intel and allowed for smaller and lighter batteries. Microsoft resurrected Windows XP as the Netbook operating system while Linux provided a free alternative to Windows XP. And then there is the 3G data availability through USB sticks.

It all seems to have come together at the right time.

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