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The future of netbooks

What technologies will the netbooks of the future incorporate as standard? Here are ten we expect to still be around in 2012 and five we don't.
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1 of 17 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

Ten Things You Will See In Netbooks By 2012...
In just over a year, since the launch of the ASUS Eee PC in October 2007, the netbook — a small, lightweight, moderately specified and (above all) affordable notebook computer — has become one of the hottest categories of client hardware. In retrospect, this should come as no surprise — after all, no-one wants to carry more notebook or pay more for it than they have to. But what technologies will the netbooks of the future incorporate as standard? The following ten pages list ten that we think will make the grade, while the remaining ones list our tips for also-ran status.

 

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2 of 17 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

3G everywhere
A netbook that can't connect to the internet is a PDA that won't fit in your pocket — which is why you can't get one without Wi-Fi. But 3G is now mature, fast and cheap enough to use, while the network operators are desperate to populate their expensive infrastructure with lots of people. Combine that with a glut of affordable 3G silicon, and 3G becomes the new Wi-Fi.

 

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3 of 17 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

Many-core chips
At first glance, putting teraflop chips in a £250 netbook is akin to shoving a Rolls Royce Trent jet engine on a pushbike — you'll live just long enough to die. But the basic equation behind multi-core chips — that you can get high performance out of a bunch of relatively slow CPUs more efficiently than one very fast, very hot single-core chip — works just as well if you want to get good-enough performance at very low power consumption. That's completely unexplored at the moment, but as software starts to get good at multi-core CPUs and chip-makers continue to up the core count, we'll see some interesting developments at the very low end of the client market.

 

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4 of 17 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

ARM
While Intel is promising that the next generation of Atom will be an ARM-killer in smartphones, ARM is being just as bullish about its architecture and netbooks. No, Windows won't run on an ARM processor, but Linux is as happy as a penguin in a shoal of herring. And with the ARM architecture comes a lot of good stuff — the mobile phone industry is already a master of including tons of hardware for video, audio, communications and peripherals on the same silicon as an ARM core. Imagine the inventiveness and competitive energy of smartphone makers in a proper netbook form factor.

 

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5 of 17 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

8-hour battery life
We're almost there with some of the bigger battery packs, if you don't mind typing slowly in the dark. But as the netbook market grows and evolves away from using older chip designs, some of the extremely effective power management in newer products will kick in. And barely a day goes by without someone in a white coat announcing a major breakthrough in lithium ion cell construction. Most of those won't make it, but enough will.

 

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6 of 17 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

Instant On
Why, exactly, does a low-power design with all its data in flash memory have to ever really turn off? No, we don't know either. The architectural divisions in PC design — where a separate BIOS chip runs through a whole set of pointless tests before letting the processor get going on an operating system that loads off a slow hard disk before firing up the user environment — are just a hangover. Bung everything in the same flash memory, have a decent suspend mode, build your OS like Splashtop so it gets going quickly when you do have to start from scratch, and forget you ever had to wait three minutes to get a browser up.

 

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7 of 17 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

Phone emulators
Another daft idea, right? A netbook is not a phone, after all. But now that companies like Apple — OK, just Apple, so far — have reignited the mobile applications market, there's money in making neat little programs that you want to carry around with you all the time. Who wouldn't want to make more money by selling them on more platforms? And since a netbook running a phone emulator won't cannibalise any actual mobile phone sales, you just ship an emulator for your mobile platform and gain another revenue source with minimal investment and less risk. Oh, and if you've got an ARM chip in there anyway, performance will be just swell.

 

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8 of 17 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

Multi-touch
Yeah, it works. People like it. It lets people who don't understand computers do clever things, and looks very cool in demonstrations. There's virtually no extra hardware cost, the APIs and applications are being rolled out anyway, and it doesn't get in the way of anything.

 

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9 of 17 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

GPS
Why on earth put GPS in a netbook, when you'll be using it indoors most of the time and the device's size makes it impractical to use when you're actually on the move? Well, location-based services that hook into local transport and infrastructure work a lot better on a bigger screen, as does any sort of mapping; devices that know where they are (even if you don't know where they are) have lots of security advantages; and the darn stuff's so cheap now that you might as well have it.

 

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10 of 17 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

Default encryption
Your netbook is small and cheap, so you'll lose it. It's also capable of handling tons of your personal data and IDs, as well as hooking usefully into your corporate networks from anywhere, so you really don't want to let someone else find it. Solution: make very sure that only you can access that lump of plastic-wrapped silicon. That means tight security and data that won't come off even if the bad guys start lifting chips. Simple enough to design in, and once people get the idea they'll accept nothing less.

 

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11 of 17 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

The cloud
Netbooks love the cloud, and the cloud loves netbooks. A cheap, powerful, relatively fast, ultra-connected device that's good enough to do real work on, but not designed to handle those big old, fat old corporate applications? Why, they're all waiting for you in the cloud. And the cloud will happily suck up everything on your netbook and keep it safe, so that if you do break it, lose it, upgrade it or reset it, you can restore your entire mobile netbook life with a wave of your 3G connection.

 

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12 of 17 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

...And Five You Won't
You've seen ten technologies that we think will make it to the 2012 finishing line in the netbook stakes. The following pages list five that, for various reasons, we reckon will get left at the starting gate or fall along the way.

 

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13 of 17 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

WiMAX
Sorry. It's not going to happen — at least not in 3G-saturated Europe. Even if the mobile WiMAX networks can provide useful extra speed, it's going to be very difficult to justify sinking billions into building the infrastructure just to go head-to-head with the established networks in the middle of what will be an extremely bloody price war. The best WiMAX can hope for is to have some of its technology folded into the LTE 4G effort, but it's not going to look like all those PowerPoint presentations that have bravely flown the flag for seven years.

 

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14 of 17 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

OLED
At first sight, OLED technology would seem perfect for netbooks. More efficient than LCD, therefore kinder on batteries, and still most economical in smaller screen sizes, OLED displays look fantastic and can be made wafer thin and feather light (see Sony's XEL-1 TV above). But like all new technologies that directly compete with existing incumbents, OLED has the fearsome disadvantage that it can't afford to invest enough to beat all those years of cost-cutting, technical tweaking and relationship building on the LCD side. Netbooks are all about cheap and good-enough rather than expensive and somewhat better — and for the foreseeable future that's going to be a win for the liquid crystals.

 

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15 of 17 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

An Apple Logo
Nobody can predict Apple's next big move, so there's a degree of foolhardiness in predicting that the company will ignore a growing, design-conscious and potentially huge market — especially when it nestles so nicely between iPhone and MacBook. And the company could issue forth loveliness here at the drop of a turtleneck: it has all the chops. But those low margins? That ultra-competitive market? In a form factor that won't really run the desktop apps properly but would be a very poor match for the iPhone's approach? Too many compromises. And Steve hates compromises.

 

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16 of 17 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

Vista
What can one say about Vista on a netbook that hasn't been said by all those who've already encountered this, shall we say, sub-optimal coupling? By the time cheap netbook technology is up to the task of making Vista seem a good idea, the poor old operating system will be rebranded to Windows 7. Will that appear? It could do — if Microsoft takes the task seriously enough, sorts out its revenue model, sorts out the architecture, sorts out its marketing and sorts out what on earth it wants to be in 2012. Over to you, Redmond.

 

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17 of 17 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

Windows Mobile
Come on. Why wouldn't you want to run Windows Mobile on a netbook? It's the only OS Microsoft has that runs on an ARM platform, after all, and it's out there pretending to be a desktop OS on smartphones already. The answer to this question is painfully obvious to anyone who has run Windows Mobile on a big screen, where it brings back all those memories of Windows 3.1 that you've so successfully repressed. It could be much more than that — with a lot of focussed effort, political will and smart moves from Microsoft — but the signs aren't good.

 

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