Mac Musings

No, an Overgrown iPod touch Is Not a Netbook

Dan Knight - 2009.01.06 - Tip Jar

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The iPhone is not a netbook. Neither is the iPod touch. And neither is the BlackBerry Storm, despite the assertions of Mike Lazaridis, President and Co-CEO of RIM, to the contrary.

What Is a Netbook?

A netbook is essentially a notebook computer that's been reduced in size for maximum portability. Beyond that, different people have different definitions, including terms like underpowered.

Before we go any further, we should note that the term netbook has come under fire from Psion, which once marketed a netbook called the Psion netBook and trademarked the term. Some websites that use the term have been served cease and desist notices.

Not only is Psion within its legal rights to do so, but failure to protect its trademark would result in the eventual loss of the trademark. However, the term has been in common use since 2007, and Psion's failure to protect it immediately could result in the term becoming genericized, as has happened to many trademarks over the past century.

Until Psion prevails or the industry switches to another label, we'll use the netbook label, as it is widely understood and is not likely to bring about any confusion with Psion's long-discontinued netBook.

That said, a netbook is essentially a smaller version of the laptop computer, and I would define it as having:

  • a keyboard suitable for touch-typists
  • built-in WiFi for Internet access on the go
  • a small footprint

There is no need for a netbook to be underpowered, use a solid state drive (SSD), not have an optical drive, or meet a certain price point. Those may be common characteristics of netbooks, but they don't define them as a real keyboard, built-in wireless, and small footprint do.

What Isn't a Netbook?

A 15" laptop isn't a netbook, neither is any device - such as the iPod touch - designed for single-handed operation and lacking a true keyboard. A lot of smartphones have QWERTY keyboards, but they are too small for typing.

There is a minimum size below which a keyboard becomes a hunt-and-peck device, not something you can type on, and there is a maximum size and weight beyond which a notebook computer can no longer be considered a netbook. Those precise numbers are up for debate, but I wouldn't consider a 14" or larger notebook or any laptop over 4 pounds to be a netbook.

Smartphones, handheld computers, and tablet computers have their place, but the key idea behind a netbook is that you can take it anywhere you want to write or blog or access the Internet.

iPod touch on Steroids

It's widely rumored that Apple will introduce its own tablet computer this year, which is generally expected to be a larger version of the iPod touch. I believe that Apple would do well with such a device, as the tiny screen of the iPhone and iPod touch doesn't lend itself to word processing and blogging. A Newton-sized device would provide a lot more screen real estate, and a slide-out or wireless keyboard could make it a decent alternative to today's netbooks.

But unless such a device has a "real" keyboard, it won't be a netbook.

Apple could do very well with a tablet computer based on the iPhone OS, as it already controls the software market. It shouldn't be difficult to produce a software development kit to support the new screen size, allowing programmers to port their programs to the new platform without serious transition issues.

Further, the larger device with a larger screen means a larger heat radiating surface, so Apple could use a faster version of the CPU found in the iPod touch and iPhone.

A Mac Netbook

The MacBook Air (MBA) pushes the definition of a netbook - it's thin and light, but it has a bigger footprint than any other netbook. I wouldn't classify it as a netbook, but it's close.

If Apple could reduce the footprint, go a bit thicker, and use plastic instead of aluminum, it could create its own niche in the netbook space. It could probably use exactly the same motherboard, keyboard, and trackpad found in the MBA, couple it with a smaller display (say 11"), and use a 2.5" SATA hard drive to keep the price down (much cheaper than 1.8" iPod drives or SSD).

As with the MBA, leave out the optical drive. Unlike the MBA, make the battery and hard drive accessible. Maybe even allow RAM expansion. And make sure that everything about it says, "I'm a Mac."

A true netbook should be able to function as your only computer, and nobody does that better than Apple.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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