When I cracked the box on my $350 "netbook" computer, my inner geek cheered. I thought I could finally ditch the six-pound laptop behemoth weighing down my carry-on bag.
My frequent-flying wife looked at the little blue Acer Aspire One and dismissed it as nothing more than a larger BlackBerry. But when she realized that it weighed just two pounds and would fit easily in her pocketbook, she borrowed it for a two-night business trip. Her verdict: It was "pretty good" and "better than carrying a big laptop."
Several days later I took the netbook on a weekend trip. My fat fingers had trouble with the keyboard. The touchpad was atrocious. The built-in webcam and microphone helped me ace a few video conferences. The 8.9-inch display was sharp and clear, but the screen was too small to view documents without repeated scrolling. "It's a big BlackBerry," I grumbled.
And so it goes in the world of mobile computing. As the line between traditional laptop computers and smartphones blurs and new ideas like netbooks arrive, business travelers face a new series of choices about what to carry on the road.
Is a new generation of super-powered BlackBerry devices the future of on-the-road computing? Or is the iPhone our destiny? How big will portable computers be? How many of these things will we tote along with us every time we hit the road? Is the mythical "convergence" machine-one device that effortlessly and stylishly handles phone calls and computing tasks-on the horizon?
Questions, I got a million of them. Machines, almost as many. Answers, not so much.
"If you had the answers, you'd be the next Bill Gates," one long-time computer executive told me last week. "We're all struggling with devices, concepts, pricing, computing platforms. There are lots of cross-currents and no consensus."
In case you haven't shopped for a smartphone or mobile computer lately, let me give you the bullet points of how the market has changed:
- Almost 15 million netbooks were sold last year, according to the research firm DataBank. If the concept of "netbook" is unfamiliar to you, consider DataBank's definition: They are machines that have "similar functions" to a laptop computer, but cost much less (below $650), weigh much less (under three pounds), and have smaller screens (seven to 10 inches) and smaller footprints.
- An estimated 18 million iPhones have been sold since it went on sale in mid-2007 and Apple has redefined the feel and functionality of smartphones. BlackBerry has responded with an array of new phones, all with iPhone-like Web browsers and media players. The iPhone and Blackberry have spawned a dizzying collection of third-party "apps," many productive (budgeting and expense tracking), many fun (even PacMan lives on smartphones) and some just silly or tasteless (competing "fart joke" widgets for iPhone).
- Google, the search behemoth, has built its own operating system, called Android, and released its first smartphone, the T-Mobile G1. A burst of new phones and laptops based on Android is expected to reach the market this year. "The platform of the future is Android. It's the pathway to doing more computing online," says Phil Baker, the columnist, author, and inventor of the folding travel keyboard.
- Traditional laptops, losing sales to the cheaper, smaller netbooks, have nevertheless displaced desktop PCs as the computer of choice. Only one of Amazon.com's top 25 computing devices is a desktop; all the others are laptops or netbooks. And while the least-expensive laptops are specifically targeted as desktop replacements, a new generation of ultra-light, fully powered notebook systems like the HP EliteBook are vying for the top end of the market.
I admit that a lot of this jockeying has confused me. I traveled with an ultra-slim, three-pound notebook computer more than a decade ago and watched with horror as laptop manufacturers made their machines bigger and heavier in recent years. I didn't want to watch movies on a widescreen display, which added a few inches to the size of a laptop. I didn't want an onboard optical drive, which added weight. I wanted small, light, and mobile, and it seemed that laptop makers had forgotten that a portable computer was supposed to be portable.
I bought my first BlackBerry because I couldn't find a laptop small enough to carry everywhere. Last month I bought the Acer Aspire One on impulse because I was seduced by the small footprint (this one is 7-by-10-by-1 inches) and the light weight. And if it isn't the portable device of my dreams (I've added a mini-mouse and slowed my touch typing), it sure is a break for my aching, aging back as I schlep my carry-on bag through airports and hotels.
Of course, I'm never satisfied. I look at the iPhone and the BlackBerry and wonder why they can't do just a little more so I can ditch my laptop forever. I look at my six-pound laptop, now banished from my carry-on, and can't imagine that I ever accepted it as a "portable."
I look at my new netbook and I already think about buying one of the new models with a 10-inch screen. And while it flawlessly runs simple programs like word processing, email, and Web browsing, its low-powered processor and limited memory (mine has a fairly standard 1 gig) makes it infuriatingly slow for more complex tasks.
And where, I wonder, is my convergence machine, the one that makes calls flawlessly around the world, doubles as my music play, triples as a fully functioning portable computer and fits in my pocket?
Forget it, says Baker.
"One device will not be sufficient," he says. "We will continue to carry both a pocketable smartphone and a lightweight notebook for serious computing. Trying to combine both in a single device is like combining a toaster and microwave."
Don't get me started on toasters. I've been through three in the last two years and I still can't get my bagel toasted properly.
The Fine Print.
Here's some good news: A consortium of 17 cellphone manufacturers and cellular phone companies say they have agreed on a standard for a universal charger for mobile devices. A one-size-fits-all charger may be ready by 2012. The bad news? Neither Apple nor Research in Motion have signed on.