Netbooks – Comparing Windows, Apples and Penguins

Everyone seems to be all over this netbook meme that’s been floating around for a while.  When I first played with a netbook, it was an Asus 9” Eee PC.  I have to admit, I didn’t get it at first.  The machine that I was given to borrow over a few days was running Windows XP.  It had a very small keyboard.  Do I have large hands?  No.  (You know what they say about guys with small hands right?  They still can’t type on netbooks.)  I just found the keyboard very difficult to acclimate to for even basic tasks.

I returned the netbook, and a couple of months later was treated to another loaner.  This time it was the Lenovo S10.  Ahhhh, now we’re talking.  The keyboard was still very frustrating, and while “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” turned out something closer to “tje qujkfs bokraskdj fokse sfdl; sdlkt” I did eventually get used to the keyboard (we’re talking a few hours of use) and can now touch type on it no problem.

My issue with the netbook was that it’s effing slow.  Don’t listen to what anyone tells you.  It’s slow. The Atom processor is slow.  The memory (even with 2GB) didn’t feel sufficient.  The graphics were painful, and when loading web pages, which have a habit of stressing your graphics if there are any flash pieces or AJAX-y stuff going on, things seemed to bog down.  This was all on XP.

Given that I work at Microsoft, it may be a bit out of school to say this, but there was no way I was going to put Vista on this thing.  The machine was having enough of a time getting out of bed, there was no need to strap weights to its belt.  However, working at Microsoft as I do, I was able to put the beta build of Windows 7 on this little baby.  Build 7000.

I am happy to say that I have been running the netbook since beta started and have had no problems.  It’s not fast, and I feel bad for you if you bring your netbook up on the network from sleeping and Outlook is open and tries to synch.  Guh!  The 600px screen height is maddening, and you really don’t want to be doing anything other than light web browsing, typing email or editing docs.  OneNote is fantastic on this computer.  You have to minimize the Office 2007 ribbon (right click on it to do this) to really have anything reasonable in the way of screen real estate.  Don’t think that you are going to do any modeling on Excel.  The keyboard and screen make this hard.  Very hard.

So that’s a long preamble to bring me to the main point of this post.  Keir Thomas over at PC World has written an article suggesting that the uptake on Linux on the netbook is a complicated issue.  No it’s not.  Linux on the desktop sucks.  Period.  Thomas would love to pull a rope a dope and suggest that since Windows has a lead in the mind of the consumer, and they are already comfortable with Windows that they are willing to forgive the problems presented by a netbook out of box experience, whereas with Linux they are not.  This is wrong for a couple of reasons.

First, if the computer really is a tool, then the software shouldn’t matter.  In reality, it does.  The computer is a workbench, and you need the software tools to get things done.  The hardware is not the tool.  The operating system and associated software is.  The Linux community doesn’t make it easy to on-board.  It sucks to be you if you have to go online and ask questions about getting started with Linux.  The haters will rain insults down on you, or, as the author suggested, give you answers that are simply overly complicated.  That’s the Linux community in a nutshell.  This is not how the 95% of computer users who aren’t nerds like us want to interact with a computer.

Second, the hardware for the XP and Linux experience is the same.  So you can’t say the the awkwardness of the hardware is only applicable to Linux because their onboard experience sucks so bad.  No, the keyboard is just as small for everyone.  In fact, I would argue that because the Windows customers know what to expect out of the software, the awkwardness of the hardware would be more pronounced.

Third, is the XP factor.  Windows 7 is to Windows XP as web20 is to birthday cake candles.  That’s my Chewbacca defense coming through.  I’m making light of this a little bit, but let’s be clear.  Windows 7 looks absolutely nothing like Windows XP, and to even the most nerdiest of nerds (i.e. me) it took some time to get comfortable with the new cockpit.  You cannot buy a netbook with Windows 7, but many people are putting the beta on these machines.  It sings baby.  Windows 7 on the netbook, with the ecosystem of software available for it, will create a fantastic computing tool.

Fourth, the Apple factor.  I know you can hackintosh your way into running OS X on the Dell minis.  The Microsoft haters love to say what a great OS Apple has.  I use it at home on a personal laptop.  It’s nice.  I won’t argue with that.  I will argue that if Windows sucked so bad, why aren’t more people putting OS X on their netbooks?  You can do it.  It’s not terribly difficult.  The hardware issues would be the same as the Win and Linux users.  Windows can’t suck that bad, can it?

People use Windows because they know how to use it, there’s tons of software for it, and you can get done what you need done.  Was Vista a stinker?  Yes, the first version was pretty bad.  The SP1 version is a huge step up.  Windows 7, however, is amazing.  I’m running it on all my machines now, and except for some of the expected issues running non-beta internal builds, I haven’t had one problem.

If Google were right, and the Web was the platform, then people could get by running netbooks using only Linux with Firefox.  Unfortunately for Google, things aren’t that simple, and won’t be.  In fact, I am going to go out on a limb here and say that the Twitter guys are demonstrating the power of the Microsoft championed “Software Plus Services.”  Yes, you can access Twitter from the web, but the APIs have enabled many third party software pieces that run on phones, PCs, and other end points.  You need software to really make Twitter sing (tweet?).

Software is an amazing thing.  You have more power in your cell phone than was used in the command modules that put all the men that have ever walked on the moon.  Think about that for a moment.  Software on those end points (phones, PCs, netbooks, etc) make them special.  The hardware is your workbench, and software is your toolset.