Back to the Future? The HP Jornada 820was a "netbook' before its time, circa 1999. It ran on Windows CE with a low-power StrongARM CPU.
Netbooks and MIDs are gaining more and more popularity as value-oriented customers are searching for low-cost solutions for everyday computing tasks, which include messaging and web application use.
Currently, the most popular netbook/MID platform is a fairly common reference standard based on the Intel Atom processor. As such, it's an x86 system that's no different fundamentally from the computing paradigm we've been using for regular desktops -- it uses Windows XP and it runs the same applications. However, it is subject to the resource constraints of it being a less powerful CPU and having less storage capacity and memory than a full-blown laptop or desktop computer.
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I don't have any problem with Windows XP on netbooks, it's a stable OS and has broad support for applications and drivers. When XP is eventually retired, future netbooks will use special OEM builds of Windows 7 to provide similar functionality. But looking even further into the future, maybe Microsoft needs to re-think whether netbooks and MIDs really should be running on the same platform that run on our laptops and desktops. The install footprint for desktop Windows is really too bloated in terms of local storage and RAM requirements for a netbook or a MID, and it's subject to the same viruses and security exploits as a desktop OS. When you are on the road, the last thing you want to worry about is malware-defending your ultraportable device.
Google is already thinking of releasing their own netbooks with OEM partners using the Open Source Linux-based Android operating system. Initially, these netbooks will use similar hardware designs to that their Windows XP and Linux counterparts use now -- the same Intel Atom netbook reference that systems like the Dell Mini and the Asus eeePCs use.
However, there are some manufacturers that are looking into low-power embedded chipsets which will provide superior battery life and much better device integration, such as the ARM-based processors and the that are in smartphones like the iPhone, the BlackBerry and the T-Mobile G1. Because the target platform is going to be Android, there's little concern for backward compatibility with existing applications -- a whole new Android ecosystem is going to be developed for it, and none of the undesirable baggage from PC OSes is going to go along with them either. As we like to say in the systems integration biz, it's a "Green Field".
Likewise, it is possible that Apple may decide that instead of building a $400.00 Mac OS-based netbook, they will continue with their existing trend towards consumer electronics devices and release a MID that is essentially an over-sized iPod Touch with a keyboard. This would allow them to leverage their iPod and iPhone developer ecosystem and provide a low-power device with high performance that would truly differentiate itself from just any other x86 netbook that everyone else is making, and would probably allow Apple to justify a price tag of around $500.00, twice that of some budget netbooks such as the Dell Mini 9, which can be had in a SSD configuration for about $270.
The inevitability of this return to low-power non-x86 embedded chipsets with netbooks and MIDs is ironic because Microsoft actually introduced devices just like this 10 years ago. Some of you may not remember, but "netbooks" were once called Handheld PC Pros, or H/PC Pro for short. They were a short-lived Windows CE-based device standard produced by a handful of manufacturers (HP, Fujitsu, NEC, Philips, Samsung, Sharp and Vadem) that had a 90 percent sized keyboard, a trackpad, and a VGA resolution screen, and included embedded versions of Outlook, Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. I reviewed one of these units, the HP Jornada 820, for another publication back in 1999.
Why did the H/PC Pros fail? Well, for starters, they were too expensive for the limited functionality they provided. As I recall the Jornada 820 sold for about $800 in 1999 money. Windows CE also was also not a popular platform to develop for, as the embedded OS of the time which had the most popularity was the Palm OS that ran on the PalmPilot. The Internet had also very few "clouded" applications to make the device useful (Hotmail was the biggie back then) and there was no ubiquitous wireless access to be had whatsoever. Wi-Fi was brand new and not even fully standardized, and the H/PC units had to be equipped with land line modems for dialup Internet access or pricey Sierra CDPD cards with expensive cellular data plans.
Fast forward to 2009. Embedded device chipsets are now dirt cheap and are produced in the tens of millions. Windows CE, now called Windows Mobile, has the benefit of having 10 years of additional maturity. The .NET Framework has also matured as a common API which can be used to develop embedded Windows applications much easier than it was back in 1999.
So why not bring the H/PC Pro back? Throw a Beagleboard-type integrated TI OMAP chipset into a netbook form-factor with a cheap 10" 720p LCD, put on Windows Mobile 6.5/7 with an updated Internet Explorer browser, port a stripped-down version of Microsoft Office to it, add built-in Wi-Fi capabilities, and you've got yourself a pretty killer netbook/MID platform -- one that can vastly outperform Intel Atom designs on battery life (think 12-16 hours of continuous use) and will have powerful integrated multimedia capabilities. Give away the developer toolkit for free and create an iPhone-like App Store for the thing, and sell it for $300 or less. Suddenly, the old H/PC Pro is starting to sound a lot more desireable.
Will we see a resurgence of non-x86 netbooks? Should Microsoft introduce a Windows Mobile-based MID? Talk Back and Let Me Know.