TechnologyGuide Lines

April 6, 2010  9:46 AM

The Future of Netbooks and the Next Big Thing

Tim Scannell Profile: TScannell

Inexpensive and lightweight netbooks have quickly become the “trend du jour” in mobile computing since they first hit the scene in late 2007. Coincidentally the shift occurred at about the same time the U.S. entered into a recession and people started downsizing everything from homes and suitcases to cans of Coca-Cola (now available in those oh-so-trendy European micro servings).

Sales projections for the devices are nothing short of astronomical, with shipments of ultra-mobile PCs, netbooks, mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) and other systems expected to reach 385 billion by 2014, something not predicated by the Mayans and their annoying calendar, but by ABI Research. Many companies view netbooks as the perfect “second system” or companion to a full-size notebook computer.

Others see them as a great “consolation prize” for workers who don’t quite rate a smartphone, but do qualify for a low-cost Internet gateway system with a reasonably fast processor and a design that won’t burden service and support.

Now it seems that elusive window of opportunity that product developers and marketers seek to discover and monetize may be closing faster than expected, although not because demand has waned. The siren’s call of the Apple iPad may be too much to resist for people looking for something more in an ultra-mobile PC. Netbook shipments jumped a whopping 872% in the first quarter last year, although shipments were only expected to grow 33.6% this year, according to market researcher IDC. It’s still impressive, but significantly lower than a year ago.

Initial analysis of netbook user demographics – young, hip, Internet-savvy and cash-strapped individuals – may be wrong, according to a survey released earlier this year by , The primary users of the small and mobile devices are 45-64 years olds, according to the survey, although more than half say the systems don’t replace their primary PCs. Hmmm … maybe they are the computing equivalent to the early bird special dinner: inexpensive, smaller and easy to get out of the way.

In any case, it is the iPad factor that is of most interest, since it seems Steve Jobs new gotta-have-it toy is expected to impact everything from digital readers and tablet PCs to smartphones and personal entertainment devices. Apple, it seems, has invented – or more accurately, figured out how to mass market and consumerize – the long-awaited human-centered personal computing device.

For those of you who are old enough to remember, this was the goal of “Project Oxygen” an internal think tank at MIT, which, despite rumors, has nothing to do with airport and lounge oxygen bars that have cropped up around the world.

Intel, maker of the Atom processor that is used in a lot of today’s netbooks, won’t say if orders from manufacturers are waning (according to a recent BusinessWeek article), although many mobile computer makers admit they have already started to look for The Next Big Thing- in computing. Ironically, it will probably be a device that is very small, very personal and extremely mobile.

At International CTIA Wireless 2010 last month in Las Vegas, longtime industry analyst Dr. Gerry Purdy held an awards dinner as part of his re-launched MobileTrax service and the Inside Mobile Mobility Awards (more on this in a coming blog). One of the winners was Kopin Corp. for its Golden-i wireless and wearable micro display that “projects” a floating HD screen in front of your eyes and essentially turns your head into a computer stand.

I don’t know if it’s indeed The Next Big Thing, but the message is clear: The future of mobile computing is not only straight ahead, but may be staring you right in the face.

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