Camen Design

© copyright

Of Netbooks

I sighted one of these:
(Photo: “Just a Laptop” by Iain Buchanan. cc-by)

“Just a Laptop” by IainBuchanan

It’s a Dell Latitude X200. It is a 12″ Laptop, no CD-drive, impressively thin, and sporting a Pentium III-m 800 MHz processor. It is—by all counts—old, but it is very beautiful in person and—in my opinion—the perfect template for the perfect netbook. Whilst this machine does not have built-in wireless itself, it definitely got me thinking about what the goals of a good netbook should be.

The modern netbook category has sprung out of nowhere on the basis that these machines are adequate for the majority of people’s requirements, and that they are cheap and portable. The problem I see is that netbooks are designed, built and sold on the basis of what they are, rather than what you can achieve with them.

I have two netbooks. The first is an Asus Eee PC 701. It has a 7″ 800×480 screen and a 4 GB SSD with Xandros Linux as the default install. The size, and the weight are excellent. The keyboard, the screen, and the software are not. The keyboard is far too cramped and the screen resolution to low to be of practical use on the majority of websites. The default Xandros install is woefully out of date, sporting Firefox 2.0, with no ability to update other than to install a new operating system, which I did. This netbook my mother uses for browsing eBay.

This netbook defeats its own purpose with massive design flaws centred around the browsing experience: a small keyboard, small resolution, and an out of date browser. So why was this machine ever created in the first place, if it is not fit for purpose? Oddly it’s still a best-seller though.

My second netbook is an Asus Eee PC 901 Go. This I use exclusively for work. It has a 9″ 1024×600 screen, 12 GB SSD, Windows XP and integrated 3G modem. This is overall a very good machine, but I still feel that it has been designed around how it looks, rather than any specific purpose in mind. The keyboard is no good for large amounts of typing. You may ask “why would you want to type so much on a machine that’s not really designed for it”, I say: why is it not designed for it, when the ’Web is made up of much typing—e-mails, forums, blogs and so forth? It is a complete faux-pas to think that the keyboard is less-important on a computer built for browsing, when typing is the primary interface to the computer.

Which brings me back to the point about what you can achieve with them. If it has a keyboard, I can write the latest world-changing website on it, or a ground-breaking scientific thesis. It is another faux-pas to believe that just because a computer is small and basic, that you can’t do ‘serious’ work on it.

Text is serious work.
We produce and consume more text in this world then any other medium. Text has shaped every facet of our lives. Only text is official: signatures, laws, science.

Kroc Camen

My serious work is this website. Writing and publishing articles like this one. What I want to see is a netbook focused on blogging. A machine designed for the task. No, none of the existing ones do this—even the ones with full size keyboards.

The X200, to me, was like looking at the prototype. The technology was not there, but the design was. The X200 is elegantly simple, for a PC. It lacks much of the clutter of even my netbooks. It has a full size keyboard that is nice to type on. It is so thin and light it can be carried around as easily as a notebook (the paper ones). It is an effortless machine to whip out and do some serious work on. It is of course, however, missing many things, given its age. So with that, let’s move past the ‘prototype’ and look at what I would define as the perfect netbook for ad-hoc blogging work.

1 Kg weight
It must be so light that it is as effortless as carrying a mobile phone around with you everywhere. It should feel like being armed with paper and pencil at all times, ready to capture thoughts.
0.5″ thin
It should be nothing more than a ‘glass typewriter’. It is screen, and a keyboard. Just like a pen and paper.
12″ Screen, Full size keyboard
Like the 12″ Powerbook, the keyboard should go up to the edges of the machine, to hold a nice 12″ OLED screen @ 1024×768, but with standard-sized keys and no crazy shortcuts, like putting the right shift key next to the up-arrow key (Eee PC), or putting the Function keys on Fn keys, and omitting F11 & 12! (Dell Mini 9)
Fanless, ARM-based
The ARM processor offers fanless processing that is adequate enough to run a modern OS and browser. A laptop that gets so hot that you cannot use it on your lap defeats the very purpose. The perfect netbook should be as comfortable as a pad of paper on your lap.
12 Hour battery life
Because I shouldn’t have to fit creative periods around charging times.
Integrated 3G

I spent months specifically tracking down an Eee 901 with integrated 3G (not available at retail in the UK). Why? I didn’t want to plug in a USB modem to connect to the net. I didn’t want the ‘noise’ cluttering my experience, adding hurdles, giving me reasons not to get the laptop out to work on something. Hassles.

If you physically had to unscrew your pen, take the ink out, put it back again, and screw up the pen—every time before use—you would just not bother and let your ideas lie most of the time. The same is with technology. Ideas escape and run away quickly, you must therefore catch them quickly too; anything that stands as a hurdle to that, no matter how small, is poor design and a hindrance to creativity.

Sure, it’s been possible to download and install apps on mobile phones for ages. How many people bothered until the iPhone App Store came along? Simplicity is the difference between success, and failure. For that, you need to be able to get online—anywhere—at a moment’s notice.

Simple hardware, lacking clutter

No lights. The OS tells me how much battery is left and if it’s charging or not—let alone the physical cable plugged into the computer telling me that too! No need for a disk light, it just gives you paranoia.

2× USB ports, one either side. An SD card slot. Headphone socket. That’s it. No ethernet: between 3G and Wifi you have everything. Phone signal coverage in the UK is basically 99%. Even in the middle of nowhere you can still get at least 53 Kbps GPRS.

Vanilla Ubuntu
No custom interface. No ‘easy-mode’. No OEM software. No ‘special offers’. No bundleware.
Just plain, out-of-the-box, vanilla, Ubuntu. No OEM repository that you have to wait six months for patches to trickle into. No out of date software, stuck that way. Ubuntu, from Ubuntu servers.

All of these requirements are genuinely achievable using current technology. Nothing I have asked for is impossible here. The difficulty is if manufacturers can control themselves enough to design according to a meaningful purpose, rather than technology, for technology’s sake.