I’ve put together a short brief to bring anyone out of the loop into the loop in regards to netbook computing. A static link to this article can be found in the articles section.

What is a “Netbook”?

The term “netbook” refers to a low-cost, small-sized, energy-efficient laptop computer. The term has only begun to see common usage in the past six months. Netbooks are a very new development in computing. Spurred by One Laptop per Child Inc.’s “XO” netbook, leading manufacturers such as Dell, Asus and Intel have now developed their own netbooks. The introduction of Asus’ EEEPC and Dells Mini 9 have effectively established a competitive market for these devices.

“IDC, a market research firm, is predicting that the category could grow from fewer than 500,000 in 2007 to nine million in 2012 as the market for second computers expands in developed economies.
Intel is projecting that by 2011, the market for the netbooks will be 40 million units a year…”
The New York Times, Matt Richtel, July 21, 2008.

Why are they being made?

One Laptop per Child Inc.’s “XO” netbook is widely regarded as the first real attempt at creating a “netbook”. The XO was developed in order to provide low cost computing to underprivileged children. The custom operating system the XO uses is specifically designed for educational use – this turns the XO into a collaboration device for teaching in the classroom. Due to the success of the OLPC project so far (over half a million units have been sold or donated), major IT entities have become aware that a market is emerging and are moving to secure a market share.

Dell and Asus’ netbooks are less geared towards direct educational goals and more towards providing simply a “cheaper option” for computing. Unit prices can range from $300 to $650. Firms in India and China are currently working on developing a viable sub-$100 unit.

This marketplace has emerged only now that the technology used in creating these devices is sufficiently mature.

What is different about a netbook?

Netbooks are smaller, lighter and more energy efficient than their larger notebook counterparts. Netbooks provide most of the features in a Notebook, but lack the processing power to perform ‘heavier’ computer work effectively (like 3D rendering or highly complicated data processing).

What opportunities do they present?

Netbooks offer students and families both in developing nations and first world countries access to powerful computer and networking technology at minimal cost. “Cost” does not only include the price of the unit itself, but includes outlay for power and network infrastructure required to support the devices. As netbooks are low-powered and wirelessly networkable, cost of infrastructure significantly less than what is required for traditional laptops or desktop computers. This means communities that perviously had inadequate infrastructure or funds to support the deployment of high-technology now have the chance to.

In the case of the XO, its “Persistent Mesh Network” feature offers broadband-enable wireless connectivity to other users and devices, which could result in broadband Internet being accessible in areas lacking traditional infrastructure. “This trickle-across” effect has significant implications for broadband communications in remote communities.

Where are they in use now?

There are nearly 600,000 OLPC XO netbooks in circulation worldwide today. Some countries trialling the device are The United States, Uruguay, Peru, Mexico, Haiti, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Mongolia, Cambodia, Thailand, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Sri Lanka. Recently, a major deployment to a range of Pacific nations was successfully completed. Last month 5000 donated units arrived in Rwanda.

Competing models such as Asus’ EEEPC and Intel’s ClassmatePC are currently being trialled in Brazil and Peru.