PC: Meet the Home Motor

The computer no longer conjures up an image of glass walled-rooms filled with blinking lights and scientists in white lab coats.  More likely, the image is that of a desktop computer, which has become the prevalent interface to the computing world since 1981, when IBM launched the first IBM PC.

Similar to the mainframes in those glass-walled rooms, desktops were largely immobile; they stayed put on the desk.  Portable computers, which trace their history back to early 1981, when the Osborne 1, weighing in at 11 kilograms, was introduced, were hardly portable and were very expensive.  [The first notebook-style computer was the NEC Ultralite of 1989 weighing a little over 2 kilograms.]  But desktop computers had one advantage: they were cheap and powerful compared to laptop computers.  That pricing disparity meant far more desktops than laptops were sold in the ensuing years.

Still, when we need to use a computer for computing (whatever that means), we typically go to it in order to use and benefit from it.  What we do with it has changed as well; most computers are used to process words and text and manipulate images while the earliest mainframe computers performed calculations for researchers and statisticians.  Computers are also used to play games, listen to the radio, watch television programming and  movies, although these tasks are slowly being offloaded to purpose-built devices that typically embed a microcomputer, some storage, and WLAN radio within.

In my book Managing the Knowledge Workforce, I wrote of the Sears Home Motor, a popular home gadget ca. 1900.  The home motor powered anything that might need turning, such as a mixer, churner, beater, fan, buffer, or grinder.  Typically a household had one home motor and plugged the appropriate attachment into it.  Nowadays the home motor is a relic, obsoleted by the ubiquity of motors in devices that require them, such as a fan or mixer.  “Motors-and microprocessors-surround us but we don’t think of them individually” I wrote then.  “As computers become more and more embedded, they, too, will disappear from view.”

I thought of the home motor when I began testing the several netbooks, a new class of computer that is distinguished by its very light weight and very low price.  It may very well be the netbook computer that sets the computer free from the desktop once and for all.   AT&T is calling them “mini laptops” and offering them in several markets at prices starting at $49.95 with the purchase of 3G mobile broadband services.

Last week I spoke with Jeremy Brody, HP’s global business notebook product manager.  In discussing netbooks, he made repeated used the phrase “good enough” to describe the computing experience they and others believe  purchasers are after.  While I understand what he (and others who use the term) may mean, I think that “good enough” implies that one must settle for something less than optimal.  While it is true that the specs of today’s netbooks are far less impressive than almost any $900 laptop on the market, the netbooks are still probably as fast if not faster than a laptop from 18 months ago, which is probably typical of what people already have.  I don’t think users are settling for “good enough”; rather, I think they are slowly but surely changing their habits in terms of where they use computers and for what.

Netbooks are designed for long battery life and fast Web browsing.  As more tools, applications, and data move into the cloud, a Web browser is the portal that users will go through.  Infrequent business travelers who don’t have a laptop might “settle” for a netbook as a companion device to their desktop computer.  Palm tried to invent the companion notebook market two years ago, announcing the Foleo in June 2007 and cancelling the project three months later (see http://www.basexblog.com/2007/09/07/foleo-ii/)   But the Foleo was somewhat flawed from the beginning, lacking storage and the ability to run standard desktop productivity applications, among other reasons.  In contrast, many netbooks come with Windows XP or even Vista, allowing almost anything that can run on a standard PC to run in this environment.

Companies such as HP are even making “business class” netbooks, which abandon plastic for metal and further blur the distinction.  I’ve been using (on a regular basis) a Lenovo ThinkPad X300 that, while not a mini, is close in weight at only 1.3 kg.  Despite its relatively small screen (13.3″), I have found that I am much more likely to take this computer with me on short trips (even those of just a few hours’ duration) and I am also able to, on more pleasant days, take the laptop outdoors and work while enjoying a less traditional, non-Dilbertian office environment.

The netbook may really represent an interregnum of sorts between traditional PCs and a new class of devices that may turn out to be a type of personal computing panel that folds up into something no bigger than a standard smartphone.  These PCPs (as I have named them) would use new paper-thin display technology and solid state storage and naturally leverage superfast ubiquitous Net access.  No one has announced anything such as this but this is where I see true personal computing going.

Home motor, anyone?

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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