Netbooks as signposts on an evolutionary road

I've been "into" small mobile computers for years. I didn't know it at the time, but I've spent quite a long time trying to junk-build my own netbook. I've played with old Mac Powerbook Duos, old Compaq Contura Aeros, HP LX-series DOS and GEOS palmtops, TI-92, Epson EHT x86 handhelds, etc. All of them lacked one or more of the "essential" features of a modern netbook - a commodity CPU/chipset to run a generic OS, built-in or otherwise easily available WiFi, a reasonable (modern) screen resolution, a usable keyboard. So, when ASUS announced the Eee PC I knew right away that it was the basic design I had been wanting for a very long time, coupled with a reasonable price point. This price vs size point has been discussed for the last year and a half or so in other sources. One thing I haven't really seen much of is the analysis of the evolution of mobile computing. I'm no pundit, I'm just some geek that's finally been accommodated by the industry with a product I actually want.

For the last 30 years portable machines have been whittled to a few size constraints that are only possible to bypass by re-engineering the fundamental design of the portable computer. Look at every mobile device out today and you see that they are fundamentally limited in size generally by only 1) the size of the display, 2) the size of the keyboard (or other input device), and/or 3) the size of the battery pack/power supply.

Analysis of my Acer Aspire One leads to these points: The thickest part of the case is the rear hinge that houses the battery pack. The widest part of the case is only marginally wider than the keyboard. The depth of the case is only marginally deeper than the keyboard and touchpad combo and also the screen and webcam combo, both stacked in front of the the battery pack. The only way to shrink the AA1 is to shrink any one or more of the three limits I listed above.

Sony managed get around part of this in the Vaio P by using a nub pointer instead of a touch pad (note: Wired did an analysis on if the Vaio P is a "netbook"and glossed right over the touchpad issue). That has the tradeoff of taking away the ability to use multitouch features, at least until they include a touch screen, but they re-engineered the basic design.

Many netbooks could see small size cuts by being built with LiPoly batteries that are built into the cases. How much space could be trimmed on the rear of the standard netbook if a large flat sheet of LiPoly was built behind the screen? The screen half would get marginally thicker but the main body could be slimmed quite a bit. That would trim space on two dimensions in one go, but would trade off the consumer removable battery. To keep that it might be just as easy to put the LiPoly in the space under the keyboard by shrinking the mobo designs and filling otherwise empty space with custom LiPoly packs. Part of shrinking the mobo design is reducing the cooling demands that need a fan and shroud stacked on top of the CPU & chipset.

VIA failed on usability with it's Nanobook design, and thus so has the Everex Cloudbook and all the rebrands of the design. They sacrificed screen size to place the touch pad right next to the display. That design failed in the early 90's when builders tried putting trackballs and buttons on the screen half of laptops. The Packard Bell Easynote design has a ridiculously tiny touchpad in front of the keyboard. All of this is simply trying to engineer around putting in a full touch screen while also trying to mitigate the size of the device mandated by the design of stacking up the keyboard and touchpad. The next logical step to shrink a netbook is to either pull a Sony and use a nub or go for a full touchscreen.

The single largest component on a netbook is the keyboard and already they are smaller than the average laptop keyboard, which are in turn smaller than a desktop keyboard. Sony has already hit the keyboard limit on the Vaio P, and I see that as being the main obstacle to the size of netbooks in the foreseeable future.

The next logical designs of netbooks will see touchscreens *and* nub pointers, along with Apple style integrated batteries, and super-wide screens matching the size of the keyboard. The human limit of usability is the input device, which can not shrink much before it truly hinders usability. The keyboard is the single component of a netbook around which all other design points will match. Every goofy design that has been tried has failed thus far. The lasting design of the past few decades is the clamshell notebook and it's evolution has lead to two roads - a maximal size limit dictated by the screen size (desktop replacements), and a minimal size limit dictated by the keyboard size (netbooks).

Back-typing keyboards, thumb boards, and even virtual touch screen keyboards suffer from faults that just cannot be engineered around. The back typing keyboard puts a huge limit on using hte device on a table/desk and also hitting a specific key, as it requires a complete touch typing knowledge of the keyboard - absolutely no hunt and pecking. Back typing will totally fail in the mass market. Totally and utterly fail. Thumb boards are ok for limited use, a la SMS and on-the-go email and ebook reader devices but pose serious functional limits for a netbook/notebook device. The next gen OLPC 2 design is to use a virtual touch screen keyboard. They have serious engineering work ahead of them if they want to make it as usable as a normal keyboard. RIM already took a step with the Storm and it's clicking screen, but it still lacks actual tactile feedback of the fingers on each individual button.

So, in my final ramblings, I see the "netbook" as trending to one major design if it is to be a separate class than a notebook. That design is a small mobo and LiPoly battery under the keyboard and a display that matches the physical size of the keyboard, with a touchscreen and most likely also a nub pointer. The standard notebook design of large palm rests and a touchpad do not fit in with the ultra small/mobile/portable/pocketable design of the netbook. Many of these design changes come with costs to manufacture. Current battery designs are cheap because they use cheap cell packs. Once netbooks settle around keyboard sized designs a fairly common battery pack will emerge, much like the hinge pack design that is current.

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