13 Feb 2009, 1:06pm
media & technology
by jordan

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netbooks: lowering the bar to entry

reading various tech blogs and discussion boards lately, i’ve been following some of the debate around “netbooks,” small, underpowered laptops that cost much less than full-sized ones. so-called netbooks aim to meet basic internet and computing needs (email, web surfing, some wordprocessing) in a superportable form, such as Acer’s Aspire One, the ASUS Eee PC, the Dell Mini 10, or the MSI Wind. some netbooks seem to be more like glorified handhelds — cramped keyboards, small screens, and limited processing power (many run on Intel’s Atom chip), but long battery life — and they have been touted for precisely these features. in theory, netbooks are poised to fill a niche between smartphones and full-sized laptops, offering an inexpensive, internet-capable device with the benefits of both — perfect for traveling or taking to a coffeeshop.

one purported use of the netbook is as a secondary computer, an ultralight portable for an affluent consumer who already owns a larger, more valuable, and full-featured machine. for such users, a netbook can offer a disposable, affordable alternative for their “mobile lifestyle,” presuming, of course, a particular kind of mobile, middle-class, professional consumer (not coincidentally, the targeted demographic for many shiny new tech devices). but unlike an iPhone or a Blackberry, which remain expensive devices with pricey data services, a netbook is priced low relative to that of full-sized laptops. low-end PC notebooks in the same range ($300-600) are inevitably bulky, heavy, and impractical for taking on the go.

still, netbooks’ inadequacies have been criticized by Techcrunch’s Michael Arrington, who contends that their popularity will be limited: “Netbooks are designed to appeal to two very different markets – the price sensitive and the size sensitive. The two are really mutually exclusive.” Arrington makes a good point, but at the same time, there are shifts in how people are using technology which will make netbooks more appealing. personal computers have become primarily networked devices, for messaging, web browsing, streaming music and video, and so on, where an earlier generation of computers were seen as “productivity” tools. WiFi and wireless data networks make it possible to connect to the internet from almost anywhere — on campuses, in coffeeshops, at the airport. while smartphones have greatly improved their capacity to access the internet and social media services, they remain expensive compared to mobile phones without data plans, and are only used by a minority.

what’s more, computers, like cell phones, have become highly personalized items — for those as can afford it. no longer primarily a shared family or classroom device, laptops conform to a modern Western ideal of possessive individualism — a sense of personhood as singular and individual, One Laptop Per Child. netbooks, precisely by virtue of their affordability, promise to make available the always-on, interconnected world of social networking sites, cloud computing, and streaming media to a wide audience. as personal computers go, they offer a highly portable, technologically sufficient device that provides access to popular media and services, in a market saturated by products overpowered for many everyday uses. moreover, the coming popularity of off-site “cloud” computing may make netbooks even more viable.

still, i suspect the netbook naysayers are correct in their dismay with netbooks’ constrained capacities, and that most people won’t prefer to have an undersized, underpowered device as their main computer. but for a growing generation of students, young people, and others of limited means, netbooks may offer the most cost-effective way of participating in a digitized, networked world of personal portable devices, regardless of preference. netbooks offer the promise of improving access to new media for many, but this comes at the cost of better performing, more expensive computers. technology use will remain marked by its economically and socially uneven terrain.

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