Netbooks are a usage-model, not defined by size and capabilities

Thus far, netbooks have been defined largely by the artificial market segmentation restrictions put on them by hardware and software vendors, as a way to prevent cannibalization of more premium SKU chips and software. The media has been quick to pick up these restrictions and regurgitate them as a defacto definition of netbooks, without thinking about what a netbook really is.

We've all heard netbook characterizations such as, clamshell notebooks with a 7 - 10.2-inch screen that is "purpose built for Internet use". Or, is a small, low-cost, mobile computing device designed for consuming content, rather than creating new content. Those characterizations may be good for segmenting lower-end chips and software into platforms, so as to short-term stave off some cannibalization. But let's first talk about the usage model of a netbook, which is a much better place to start for a definition, and then look where things are quickly headed.

A simple way to say it, is that a netbook is a notebook geared towards a more network and media oriented usage. To come at it a different way, the applications and data it works with are less tied to locality of the platform, but rather more to the "cloud". This has not precluded localized data and apps in current netbooks. However, the gist is that a netbook is a shift from the traditional notebook model, towards the cloud. Taking this to the extreme, where a device operates exclusively in a cloud-centric way, we may call future devices "cloud books".

What does size have to do with it? Nothing. That's a segmentation restriction. And as far as only consuming media content, that's another soon-to-be-short-lived artifact of marketeering. Today for example, Nvidia announced a new graphics chipset for Atom platforms which for a $50 premium over current netbook prices, will run Vista Premium (and Win7) and has smoking (10x) faster graphics than the Intel counterpart. It's also powerful enough to offer video transcoding. This certainly brings netbooks into the realm of content creation.

Via, who's tiny processor x86 called Nano, has no reported netbook restrictions. Nor are restrictions reported for the ARM based TI OMAP, Nvidia Tegra or Qualcomm Snapdragon lines, all of which can handle HD video and 3D graphics. And certainly on the software side, Linux doesn't restrict what platform it runs on. Think, for example Android and its trajectory from smartphones to netbooks.

It's worth noting that it will take 2 years for Intel to catch up to ARM on power consumption, according to Pat Gelsinger. What this will likely mean is that in 2009, ARM netbooks will operate in an always on, all-day-computing fashion while x86 netbooks will need to be powered down or suspended. In the true sense of the netbook usage model, this means ARM may enjoy an advantage over x86 throughout all of 2009. While x86 netbooks will remain attractive to those who desire the more conventional XP/Win7 usage.

2009 is shaping up to be the year of the netbook. But with such fierce competition from both the hardware and software space, netbook features will be driven by consumer demand and usage. And most certainly not by artificial vendor restrictions. Lest one heck of a lot of business be lost. Look for this to add pressure to the bottom lines and margins of vendors who do not adapt accordingly, and to benefit those who grab the opportunity.

Disclosure: no positions