Why I Dig Netbooks

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Netbook sketchI believe netbooks, at least in their current state, are a temporary product category. As technology progresses and manufacturing costs decline, most laptops will gain solid-state hard drives and decline in weight—why wouldn’t they? The netbook’s other defining characteristic, their size, is not diminutive enough to impact a user’s way-of-life as dramatically as an iPod Touch (or equivalent device).

What keeps me enamored with these devices is the opportunity for simplicity. As we wait for Apple, Palm, Google and RIM to strike the right balance of openness and usefulness (while pleasing the carrier overlords), netbooks offer an open, mobile-conscious playground for purposeful and unique experiences.

These experiences can (and should) be more than application launchers augmenting long-established operating systems, solutions which are heavy-handed in execution and obtuse for an audience of mobile, web-centric users. While the original ASUS Eee PC and Ubuntu Netbook Remix interfaces were steps in the right direction, Moblin and Jolicloud are far more exciting.

Moblin is an open source, Linux-based operating system founded by Intel and optimized for their nearly ubiquitous Atom processor. It’s interface is simple, attractive, immediate and shockingly fast.

Despite some of the rough edges (indicative of the project’s “beta” status), I found myself consistently impressed with Moblin as I gave it a spin on my Dell Mini 9. Rather than resigning itself to being a glorified bookmarks manager, Moblin attempts to truly integrate browsing, messaging, email and media playback into the operating system. The experience is designed to quickly get you to your destination, and then get out-of-the-way. It borrows the conventions of traditional operating systems only so far as they make sense, discarding the remainder.

The name Moblin comes from the phrase “Mobile Linux,” and the design patterns established by the desktop version (now available pre-installed on the Dell Mini 10v) are intended to scale to other mobile devices.

The only complaint I have about Moblin (aside from poor driver support at this stage of development) is that it does little to support rich web apps beyond providing a quick and modern web browser. Jolicloud addresses this.

Jolicloud Screenshot

Jolicloud is basically Ubuntu Netbook Remix with an app store. The idea is simple but powerful; web and desktop apps coexist in Jolicloud, all available for free installation through a lean, unified interface. Web apps are run using Mozilla Prism with Google Gears, allowing many to function perfectly well even when a network connection is spotty or even non-existent. I used Jolicloud as my primary netbook OS for several weeks, and was surprised by how seamlessly I switched from web apps like Gmail and Google Docs to desktop apps like Boxee and Skype.

The grace of this integration is perhaps more to the credit of increasingly sophisticated cloud solutions than to innovation on the part of Jolicloud, a product which is merely evolutionary. What it demonstrates successfully is the power of cloud experiences and the importance of acknowledging browser technology as today’s great platform.

That’s what excites me: the opportunity to infect the operating system with our upstart web apps. Windows and OS X currently acknowledge the web, but neither requires, absorbs and embraces it. We’ve seen what magic capabilities the iPhone brandishes with the promise of a consistent connection, conveniently acclimating itself into our day-to-day tasks and making our lives easier in the process. It’s only a matter of time before we demand it from all our devices.