Thinking Tech

A netbook in China

A netbook in China

Posting in Technology

Give me the applications I need, give me a Linux that will solve a Windows Netbook's key problems of a slow boot and electrical use, give me a way to add Windows applications later, and I can get a lot of people to switch over. Even if they were forced to buy Windows at retail because Linux was not offered.

Before coming to Taipei for CompuTex I spent a week in Chengdu, China with the HP Mini Netbook.

I found that, with practice, I can deal with its keyboard. It is better than those I found last year on the ASUS EEEpc.

Most of my problems involve Windows. Windows insists on loading drivers and quick launchers on start-up. This means it can take a full minute for the computer to become useful.

The same problem is repeated when you want to shut down. It defeats the “instant on” premise of the Netbook hardware.

A second problem relates to "nagware." Software that nags you, usually with its hand out, before you can do anything else. I don't like "nagware," but Windows loves it. And frankly $1,000 worth of application licenses makes no sense on a box you paid under $300 for.

Windows is also an electricity hog. No problem on a desk, a big problem in the field.

The ASUS devices I tested in my “Linux Laptop” series for ZDNet Open Source last year were able to run many hours on a charge. With the HP Mini I get two hours. I still find myself dragging a wire behind me, looking for a place to plug in wherever I go.

But there is one area where Windows shines. Whenever it starts my HP Mini begins looking for nearby wireless networks. If it finds an unsecured port with a good radio signal it goes right to work. If it is familiar with the signal's habits (if I have been here before) it will go online without a qualm.

Because of this I was able to tell two people in Chengdu they had good WiFi connections, in their offices, which they had not suspected existed.

The HP Mini is a true Netbook, and I have a strict definition for what qualifies. I want no moving parts. If there's a hard disk, if there's a DVD drive, it's not a netbook, it's a small laptop. A netbook has to be rugged to be useful in the field

This means I have “only” 2 Gbytes of storage capacity for programs and files, on a device whose retail cost was $270. The cure was a 32 Gbyte “Corsair” thumb drive plugged into one of the Mini's 2 USB ports. It also holds my Internet passwords. I can wear it around my neck.

This will be a short-term fix. Flash memory prices keep going down. By next year the Mini will probably have 32 GBytes on its own. Think of it as Moore's Law in action.

The opportunity for Linux is to sell a stick memory or "thumb" drive with what I would call a FOUX stack on it – Firefox, OpenOffice.org, Ubuntu, Xen, along with software to perform a swap. Plug that into the side of a Windows Netbook and the thumb will offer you Windows emulation, under Ubuntu, along with key applications. Application data need to be touched.

Give me the applications I need, give me a Linux that will solve a Windows Netbook's key problems of a slow boot and electrical use, give me a way to add Windows applications later, and I can get a lot of people to switch over. Even if they were forced to buy Windows at retail because Linux was not offered.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure