Back then I argued that high speed, wireless Internet access wasn't ubiquitous enough to make the concept practical. Well, I'm starting to change my mind. Not because Web access has dramatically improved, it hasn't, but because netbooks have come into their own.
What's a netbook? It's an inexpensive laptop computer running Windows or, more often, a dialect of the open source operating system Linux. Netbooks typically have screens about 8-10 inches wide, sport smaller than normal keyboards, a simple webcam, weigh in at about two pounds and have built-in wireless cards. While they lack the horsepower to do, say, video editing, the Atom processors that drive them are plenty fast for web surfing, word processing and even watching YouTube videos or listening to online audio while you work on a Google Document, which is exactly what I'm doing right now on my new netbook.
I opted for the $400 Acer Aspire One running a version of Linux called Linpus. Linpus is really Linux Lite. It presents a simple user interface that makes it easy for even new users to browse the Web, work on documents (using the open source Open Office 2.3) and do other basic tasks.
However, as I found after I worked with the netbook for a week, once you try to move beyond the baked in apps and interface, you're up against ten miles of bad highway trying to coax Linux into installing the latest versions of software and plug-ins. So, unless you're familiar with Linux, I'd suggest you opt for a netbook running Windows XP. I returned my Linux based laptop for an XP version. I'm no XP fan, but compared to Linux, XP is a breeze.
I've had this netbook for about a week now. I bought it after waiting to see if Apple introduced any inexpensive laptops (it didn't). I understand Apple's decision. With its new, beautifully-machined computers it's clearly cementing its hold on the BMW end of the laptop market. And, netbooks are more like old school Volkswagens, except much cheaper. In fact, it's clear that manufacturers like Asus, Acer, Dell and HP are in a race-to-the-bottom with netbooks. Each week, it seems, there's news of a cheaper netbook. In the U.S. Best Buy is carrying an Asus netbook for under $300.
That's not a race Apple would be caught dead in. But, it's a great opportunity for consumers, especially consumers in nonprofits and charities.
I think, with a downward economy, cheap netbooks couldn't have arrived at a better time. For 90 per cent of laptop users netbooks provide all the speed and functionality needed. Plus, the batteries on these babies last up to seven hours (at least ones with six cell batteries, which I recommend).
Because of cloud-based applications like Gmail, Google Docs, friendfeed and delicious and iGoogle, you can do serious work, collaboratively online. And, the built-in Open Office software is a worthy competitor to Microsoft's Office Suite and is perfectly compatible. So, even if you can't get a wired or wireless Web connection, you can do real work locally on "cloudless" days.
On this netbook I've made iGoogle my homepage and have loaded the newly redesigned social media/RSS feed portal with my feeds, news, Google docs, flickr pics, blog tools, Twitter and friendfeed widgets.
I can get a ton done without even leaving that single page. And, if I need to make international phone calls, I can plug a headset in and use my cheap Skype account to call and chat with Skype friends or landlines anywhere in the world. So, the netbook is also a great phone too. All this in a laptop I can fit in the inside pocket of my fall jacket (okay, it is a big pocket).
These are ideal field journalist tools too. Many have a built-in multi-card readers which make it easy to use a netbook to upload audio, stills or video from an audio recorder or digital camera. If your organization is looking to buy new computers I'd seriously suggest you consider investigating netbooks. I expect, by Christmas we'll see sub $250 ones in Canada. At that price you could buy ten before you spent the money you would have on a new Macbook Pro.
I had great hopes that the One Laptop Per Child initiative would put inexpensive computers in the hands of children worldwide. That project is floundering, but, as my Twitter pal Karin Dalziel pointed out to me, the OLPC initiative really started the whole netbook race in the first place. And, that competition has put multiple laptops within the reach of non-profits and causes with even the most limited budgets. Sometimes, in a race to the bottom, everyone wins.