This modern netbook is taking on Apple and Microsoft

In the past, small laptops have usually been cheap netbooks or expensive toys. But a Chinese startup is readying a coat pocket companion that makes a 7-inch laptop practical.

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My last column discussed the crowdfunding campaign for Gemini, a reinvention of the Psion 5mx palmtop that included a touch-typeable keyboard. It's about an 80/20 mix of smartphone and laptop, attacking a market gap that seemed to have been filled (at least for a while) by the tablet. But tablets have gotten squeezed by growing smartphones and Chromebook-battling laptops from Dell, HP, Acer and Lenovo that, at $199, are even cheaper than they were in the netbook era.

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That's why there's a tough road ahead for device maker GPD. The company launched a successful Indiegogo campaign last year for a handheld PC optimized for gaming. It had a keyboard, but creator Wade Wang realized it wasn't ideal for more mainstream PC uses. Thus was born the 7-inch GPD Pocket.

Like its smaller Indiegogo contemporary, the (Coat?) Pocket represents an attempt to bring back a small clamshell PC size lost to history. Its closest ancestors were the Microsoft-championed Ultra Mobile PCs (UMPCs) or Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) in Intelese.

These were basically miniaturized laptops -- some designed for handheld use -- that inspired exceptionally creative designs and challenging ergonomics. They included Windows-compatible devices palmtop PCs from startups such as OQO, FlipStart and Tiqit, and slightly larger products from Sony, Fujitsu and Viliv. The strongest run was made by the Samsung Q series, essentially a tablet with more controls on its bezels. UMPCs were premium devices primarily aimed at enterprises. They were succeeded by the far less expensive and slightly larger netbooks, which live on in some ways with the cheap Microsoft Cloudbook designs referenced earlier.

Made in China

It's more than a giant factory for Apple and HP

Are Chinese products simply imitations of what is produced in Japan and Korea? Or is the country creating its own unique designs and brand identity?

But while decreasing thickness has generally been a winning strategy for laptops, reducing size has not. Toshiba's tiny Libretto notebooks, released in 1986 with a 6-inch screen, never made much headway beyond Japan. Netbook screens grew from 7- to 9- to 10 inches. Their inexpensive successors running Windows 10 have generally had 12- or 14-inch displays. Perhaps the last time a company tried creating such a compact size match between screen and keyboard was Sony's 2009 Vaio P. It garnered praise for its design, but it suffered from poor performance and a deal-breaking price of $899.

In contrast, the GPD Pocket provides an even closer alignment lineup between its keyboard and its 7-inch screen size, The company has even managed to get both a USB-A and USB-C connector on board. It promises a design that rivals Apple's (at least in external appearance) and performance "far beyond the Microsoft Surface 3", and will cost $599 at retail -- more than netbooks and cloudbooks but less than many of the premium UMPCs of the day. It's available for $200 less than that via its Indiegogo campaign which has collected over $2 million -- 10 times its goal -- with about a month left to go.

Unlike the ARM-based Gemini, it will run Windows 10 as well as Ubuntu. And while there's no video of it actually working to inspire confidence, GPD has delivered before. You can buy its previous Indiegogo effort right on Amazon.com.

Like tablets and UMPCs of yore, though, the new netbook faces the sliding slope of pocket portability. Once a computing device exceeds the size of a pocket -- a default requirement for today's smartphone -- it becomes a candidate for carrying in a bag. And if a bag must be brought, then why endure the ergonomic compromises of the smaller footprint? That said, users of smaller handbags and manbags may rejoice. When the smartphone just won't cut it, there will soon be the guts of a modern Windows laptop experience that lives in a newly built tiny house.

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