On the death of netbooks.

This week, Acer and ASUS announced they’d be halting production of their netbook lines…which means, because they were the last major producers of netbooks, that the form factor is all but dead.

Ironically, I expensed a cheap netbook the day before yesterday — a Gateway, which actually means an Acer, because Acer owns Gateway now. I bought it because I need to be able to test NSFWCORP HTML on Internet Explorer 9…and even with my relatively new and fast MacBookPro, running Windows 7 or 8 in VirtualBox slows everything down so badly I can’t even switch over to edit code easily.

Hence the netbook, which is small enough to throw in my bag along with my MBP so that I can test code on the go. But I also installed Ubuntu on it, because I wanted the ability to actually use it, and I refuse to use Windows if I can help it.

My primary go-to device these days is my iPad, with a Bluetooth keyboard attached. There are days when I don’t even ever open my MacBook, because I can do 90% of what I need to do with the iPad. I’ve got Textastic installed, which allows me to do basic code editing on the fly, and iSSH, which lets me login to my server and do basic stuff.

But the keyword here is basic. Almost every tablet out there — not to mention smartphone — is designed around the act of consumption, not production. It’s very easy to surf the Web, do social networking, watch movies, etc. with your iPad…but it’s annoyingly difficult to do anything involving text editing with it. It’s actually easier for me to record and write music with my iPad than it is for me to write rich-formatted text. Apple has crippled their devices in ways that make it hard to get shit done with them.

And it is crippling, make no mistake. It’s not technically complicated to allow Pages to use standard keyboard shortcuts to italicize text, for example…but Apple has chosen not to do this. Instead, you have to reach up, tap the screen, drag to select the word or phrase you want to italicize, then tap the pop-up context menu twice to get to the I button. This is profoundly irritating if you’re writing very large chunks of text.

Textastic does a fantastic job of accommodating coders with the limitations of iOS, but it’s still really irritating to try and do anything serious with it, because of Apple’s arbitrary blocks on file system access and modifying the default keyboard behavior.

Also, a mouse. Touch is great for on-the-go, but if you’ve ever tried to use a  touchscreen simultaneously with a keyboard, you know what I mean. It’s dreadful and slow and clunky.

Which is where the netbook comes in. I really love the netbook form factor. It’s compact, but it doesn’t sacrifice physical usability for slickness or “ease of use” (and oh, the irony there). You’ve got your keyboard, your mouse, and a real, full-fledged operating system.

The only real problem with netbooks, for me, is their terrible lack of power. Using the mainstream flavor of Ubuntu 12.4 LTS on the Gateway is maddening. It takes thirty seconds for anything to open. I’m going to wipe it off and replace it with one of the stripped-down Ubuntu variants (like Kubuntu or Edubuntu) to see if that improves things, because as it stands it’s nearly unusable.

The conventional wisdom is that the netbook was killed by two suspects: tablets and the MacBook Air. I suspect that’s true, because it split the netbook’s market into two factions: people who wanted a cheap portable computing device that was larger than a smartphone, and people who wanted a small, light, full-powered laptop.

But it also leaves a gap: people who want a cheap, small, full-powered laptop. The MacBook Air is still about a thousand dollars, which is outside most people’s range for buying an inexpensive portable device. The tablets are cheap, but can’t do what a laptop does. Netbooks were a nice compromise.

I also see their demise as a worrying step on the tabletization of desktops and laptops. I have a terrible suspicion — based on OS X Mountain Lion’s added features — that Apple is trying to merge MacOS and iOS into one unified operating system, which would be absolutely horrifying. I don’t need or want and won’t accept a goddamn cell phone OS on my computer. I want MacOS’s power and flexibility. Unlike Linux, it’s usable out of the box with the major apps I need. Unlike Windows, it’s secure and stable and has UNIX underpinnings. Unlike both, it’s gorgeous and easy to use.

I hoped for a long time that Apple would launch a lower-end OS X netbook (perhaps as a reboot of the old iBook line), or at least extend the capabilities of iOS on the iPad to include more advanced features (without requiring jailbreaking). But I suppose Acer and ASUS’s announcements mean I’ll never see that. It’s a shame.


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