Fast Food Apple Pies and Why Netbooks Suck

by Joey deVilla on May 26, 2009

Yup, another article originally published in my tech blog, Global Nerdy. As with the previous two, this one is of interest not just to programmers, but anyone using portable and mobile computing devices, such as smartphones, netbooks and laptops.

If you’re pressed for time, the graphic below – which takes its inspiration from these articles by Kathy “Creating Passionate Users” Sierra — captures the spirit of this article rather nicely:

Kathy Sierra-esque graph showing  the relative positions of the smartphone (great for when you're on the go), the laptop (great for when you're sitting down) and in between, the netbook (zone of suck)

If you have a little more time to spare, I’m going to explain my belief that while netbooks have a nifty form factor, they’re not where the mobile computing action is.

A Tale of Two Pies

When I was Crazy Go Nuts University’s second most notorious perma-student (back in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s), I took a handful of business courses at the recommendation of my engineering and computer science professors. “You’re going to have to learn to speak the suits’ language,” they said. Crazy Go Nuts University has a renowned business school and I thought it would be a waste not to take at least a couple of business courses. I especially liked the Marketing couse, and one lecture stands out in my mind: a case study comparing the dessert offerings of two major fast food chains.

In the interest of not attracting the attention of their lawyers, I’m going to refer to the chains as:

  • Monarch Burger, whose mascot is a mute monarch with a glazed-over face, wearing a crown and associated paraphernalia, and
  • Jester Burger, whose mascot is a clown in facepaint and a brightly-coloured jumpsuit who loves to sing and dance.

Both Monarch Burger and Jester Burger offered a dessert that went by the name “apple pie”. Let’s examine them.

Monarch Burger’s Pie

Monarch Burger's apple pie: a slice of pie served in a wedge-shaped box Monarch Burger went to the trouble of making their apple pie look like a slice of homemade apple pie. While it seems appealing in its photo on the menu, it sets up a false expectation. It may look like a slice of homemade apple pie, but it certainly doesn’t taste like one. Naturally, it flopped. Fast-food restaurants are set up to be run not by trained chefs, but by a low-wage, low-skill, disinterested staff. As a result, their food preparation procedures are designed to run on little thinking and no passion. They’re not set up to create delicious homemade apple pies.

Jester Burger’s Pie

Jester Burger's apple pie: a tube of pastry, whose skin is pocked from deep-frying

Jester Burger’s approach was quite different. Their dessert is called “apple pie”, but it’s one in the loosest sense. It’s apple pie filling inside a pastry shell shaped like the photon torpedo casings from Star Trek. In the 70s and 80s, the pastry shell had bubbles all over it because it wasn’t baked, but deep-fried. After all, their kitchens already had deep fryers aplenty – why not use them?

Unlike Monarch Burger’s offering, Jester Burger’s sold well because it gave their customers a dessert reminiscent of an apple pie without setting up any expectations for real apple pie.

Jester Burger’s pie had an added bonus: unlike Monarch Burger’s pie, which was best eaten with a fork, Jester Burger’s pie was meant to be held in your hand, just like their burgers and fries.

At this point, I am obliged to remind you that this isn’t an article about 1980s-era desserts at fast food burger chains. It’s about netbooks and smartphones, but keep those pies in mind…

Netbooks are from Monarch Burger…

Netbooks remind me of Monarch Burger’s apple pie. Just as Monarch Burger tried to take the standard apple pie form and attempt to fit it into a fast food menu, the netbook approach tries to take the standard laptop form and attempt to fit it into mobile computing. The end result, to my mind, is a device that occupies an uncomfortable, middle ground between laptops and smartphones that tries to please everyone and pleases no one. Consider the factors:

  • Size: A bit too large to go into your pocket; a bit too small for regular day-to-day work.
  • Power: Slightly more capable than a smartphone; slightly less capable than a laptop.
  • Price: Slightly higher than a higher-end smartphone but lacking a phone’s capability and portability; slightly lower than a lower-end notebook but lacking a notebook’s speed and storage.

To summarize: Slightly bigger and pricier than a phone, but can’t phone. Slightly smaller and cheaper than a laptop, but not that much smaller or cheaper. To adapt a phrase I used in an article I wrote yesterday, netbooks are like laptops, but lamer.

Network Computers and Red Herrings

Sun's "JavaStation" network computer

The uncomfortable middle ground occupied by the netbook reminds me of another much-hyped device that flopped – the network computer, which also went by the name "thin client". In the late 90s, a number of people suggested that desktop computers, whose prices started at the mid-$1000 range in those days, would be replaced by inexpensive diskless workstations. These machines would essentially be the Java-era version of what used to be called "smart terminals", combining local processing power with network-accessed storage of programs and data.

A lot of the ideas behind the network computer ended up in today’s machines, even if the network computer itself didn’t. Part of the problem was the state of networking when the NC was introduced; back then, broadband internet access was generally the exception rather than the rule. Another major factor was price – desktop and even laptop computers prices fell to points even lower than those envisioned for NCs. Finally, there was the environment in which the applications would run. Everyone who was betting on the NC envisioned people running Java apps pushed across the network, but it turned out that the things they had dismissed as toys — the browser and JavaScript, combining to form the juggernaut known as Ajax — ended up being where applications "lived".

When I look at netbooks, I get network computer deja vu. I see a transitory category of technology that will eventually be eclipsed. I think that laptops will eventually do to netbooks what desktop machines did to network computers: evolve to fill their niche. Just as there are small-footprint desktop computers that offer all the functionality and price point of a network computer along with the benefits of local storage, I suspect that what we consider to be a netbook today will be just another category of laptop computer tomorrow.

A netbook displaying a picture of a red herring on its screen

I’m going to go a little farther, beyond stating that netbooks are merely the present-day version of the network computer. I’m going to go beyond saying that while their form factor is a little more convenient than that of a laptop, the attention they’re getting – there’s a lot of hoo-hah about who’s winning in the netbook space, Windows or Linux –  is out of proportion to their eventual negligible impact. I’m going to go out on a limb and declare them to be a dangerous red herring, a diversion from where the real mobile action is.  

…and Smartphones are from Jester Burger

Southern Chicken Place's apple pie, which looks a lot like Jester Burger's apple pie

A quick aside: The photo above is not of a Jester Burger fried apple pie. In response to their customers’ so-called health concerns (really, if those concerns were real, they’d stop eating there), they started phasing out the fried pies in 1992 in favour of the baked kind. There are still some branches of Jester Burger that carry the fried pies, but a more reliable source is a fast food chain that I’ll refer to as “Southern Chicken Place”, or SCP for short. Those pies in the photo above? They’re from SCP.

Jester Burger made no attempt to faithfully replicate a homemade apple pie when they made their dessert. Instead, they engineered something that was “just pie enough” and also matched the environment in which it would be prepared (a fast food kitchen, which didn’t have ovens but had deep fryers) and the environment in which it would be eaten (at a fast food restaurant table or in a car, where there isn’t any cutlery and everything is eaten with your hands). The Jester Burger pie fills a need without pretending to be something it’s not, and I think smartphones do the same thing.

Smartphones are truly portable. They really fit into your pocket or hang nicely off your belt, unlike netbooks:

Two Japanese models trying to stuff a Sony Vaio netbook into their pockets

And smartphones are meant to be used while you’re holding them:

Captain Kirk, his communicator and the iPhone

Just try that with a netbook. In order to really use one, you’ve got to set it down on a flat surface:

Guy using his netbook, perched on the roof of his car...with a stylus, no less!

The best smartphones make no attempt to faithfully replicate the laptop computer experience in a smaller form. Instead, they’re “just computer enough” to be useful, yet better fit the on-the-go situations in which they will be used. They also incorporate mobile phones and MP3s – useful, popular and familiar devices — and the best smartphones borrow tricks from their user interfaces.

Smartphones, not netbooks, are where the real advances in mobile computing will be made.

Smartphone vs. Netbook: The People Have Chosen

One again, the thesis of this article, in graphic form:

Same graph as the earlier Kathy Sierra-esque one at the start of the article.

In the late 80s and early 90s, the people chose the fast food apple pie they wanted: the convenient, if not exactly apple pie-ish Jester Burger pie over Monarch Burger’s more-like-the-real-thing version.

When people buy a smartphone, which they’ve been doing like mad, they’re buying their primary mobile phone. It’s the mobile phone and computing platform that they’re using day in and day out and the device that they’re pulling out of their pockets, often to the point of interrupting conversations and crashing the trolley they’re operating.

When people buy a netbook, they’re often not buying their primary machine. It’s a second computer, a backup device that people take when their real machine – which is often a laptop computer that isn’t much larger or more expensive – seems like too much to carry. It’s a luxury that people might ditch if the current economic situation continues or worsens and as the differences between laptops and netbooks vanish. Netbooks, as a blend of the worst of both mobile and laptop worlds, will be a transitional technology; at best, they’ll enjoy a brief heyday similar to that of the fax machine.

The people are going with smartphones, and as developers, you should be following them.

{ 112 comments… read them below or add one }

William Woody June 15, 2009 at 1:50 am

Who actually owns a netbook and still agrees with the conclusions of this article?

I do. MSI Wind 120. Lived with it for a few weeks, still use it for testing various mobile Linux versions floating around there, like Moblin.

And yes, owning and using one, I still agree with the conclusions of this article, though from my earlier comment it should be clear my conclusion was arrived differently.

That said, if you don’t have a lot of money and want a small portable laptop, I would definitely recommend a small, cheap laptop. However, you’d be silly to think it was something other than a small, cheap laptop.

Andrew July 8, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Being an owner of all three types of device, I must say I respectfully disagree with everything in this article. For mobile computing, I have an N97 (I work for Nokia as a test engineer). For netbook, I have an Asus 1000H, and for laptop, I have an HP Pavillion.

I’m not going to get into a full heated debate, but there are many tasks that a mobile phone cannot do effectively compared to a netbook. For example, you can’t really effectively use any Window based software on a mobile phone, such as MATLAB or powerpoint. You might argue that you can do it on a Laptop, but 90% of the time, I honestly do not need the full capability of a heavy dual core 15″ screen laptop. A 1.7GHz netbook is more than capable. I move around a lot too, and having a 2lb netbook provides the best compromise compared to a 6lb laptop.

Not to mention that the Intel atom chip used by most netbooks is very fast, very battery efficient, and very cheap. Technology and support for netbooks will only get better.

Al July 11, 2009 at 9:29 am

YOU WANNA MEET UP AND PUT THINGS IN MY BOT BOT?
Cheers,
Alexander.

Baton July 24, 2009 at 11:31 pm

Joe, I am I complete agreement. Netbooks are a luxury “bed-side” item of questionable utility. I’d even go one step futher and say that even laptops will be phased out by smartphones that will be able to connect wirelessly to keyboard AND large screen. One device is all we need.

travis August 20, 2009 at 2:47 pm

Baton – i share your dream, that a tiny device with wirelessly connect to larger screen and keyboard. i actually expected the itouch or iphone to do just that, but they just haven’t gotten on the ball yet. So until then, laptops will stick around.

Joey – i couldn’t agree with you less. Well, maybe I could. I see your point on the terminal-style net/computers. They never really caught on. But netbooks are already on an entirely different scale. Just look around. They’re producing and selling more models every month. People are actually dropping thier old laptops and moving to smaller, cheaper computers that perform the same tasks. And why shouldn’t they?

In honesty, I believe one of two things. This article was either written just for points on the search engines, or it was based on the very earliest of netbooks, the EEE 701, which was extremely limited as a device. In the case of the EEE 701 and other netbooks like it, I certainly agree. The screen was too small (7 inches and 800×640 WTF??) the keyboard was useless, a 600mhz processor (!!?) and the hard drive was only up to 4 gigs. It was a pile of almost useless crap hardware that only ran a watered-down version of a Linux operating system.

However, netbooks have much better keyboards, screens, full sized 250 gig hard drives and run Windows XP, and Vista, meaning you can install all the same software as you could on your other computers.

-Shrug-

Happy computing!

Dammit August 25, 2009 at 12:58 pm

If you want to have a car crash some day use a Smarphone, Smarthpones claim to be all, but are all and nothing at the same time:

-Poor for SMS texting, chating, Web surfing
-Stupid to try edit on an Office document (imagine you have to do some VBA =S)
-html browsing very limited
but have some pros
-You can have a real portable audio stream divice (connect to any audio system as a car audio)
-Take a pic and publish it in the fastest way on facebook and others

but a Netbook is less or nothing pretentious than smarphones, im running autocad 08, corel draw x4, adobe flash cs4, office, ares, audio and video converters, windows media, real player, quicktime, itunes etc etc on my acer aspire one!! ;)

In fact im still using my vintage nokia 1100 (the one with the lamp and capable to lid off my beers ;)

phones are to talk,
cameras are to take pictures,
pc’s laptops, netbooks are for computing

Brenner September 15, 2009 at 3:20 pm

My netbook has more performance than my 5-yr old laptop minus the CD player. 90% of my computing is word processing and internet.

I bet half the laptop snobs don’t go anywhere near the capability of their machines, and if they do, more power to them, but I know what I need. It’s like bragging about how badass your Ferrari is while driving the speed limit.

I’ve got a machine that does exactly what I need for 1/4 the price, 60% of the weight., and 50% of the volume.

Personally, I hate smart phones. A million features I never use. Read a smartphone review these days… whens the last time any review covered the quality of the antenna, voice quality, or range. All they ever talk about is how good the camera or music player is.

One of these days though, the dream of something the power of a netbook, the size of a smart phone, and can use a external monitor, keyboard, and mouse will come along…. that will be a dream machine.

Ben February 26, 2010 at 3:02 am

Perhaps the iPad would work well for the Jester burger analogy here instead of smartphones?

Michael Greenberg April 3, 2010 at 2:53 pm

You’re blog post seems very reminiscent of how Steve Jobs introduced the iPad. He said that netbook try to fill in the third pillar, in between smart phones and notebooks. But the netbook isn’t better than a smart phone or a notebook; they are just smaller and cheaper. Eventually this is how I believe the third pillar will come into play:

Smart phones (Portable)—- Tablets (Best for Consumption)—- Notebooks (Best for creation)
-Michael Greenberg, graphthe.info

James Mason August 7, 2010 at 1:33 pm

I disagree with the article. Netbooks were created for a specific segment of the consumer population and made specifically to fill these people’s needs : It’s tailored for people that want a small, battery efficient portable computer with a proper keyboard for typing they can take with them everywhere and actually use for many hours before getting it charged.

Yes, we get it, Notebooks are much better as a desktop replacement nowadays… You can get high-end Notebooks that can run most software and games a thousand time better than a netbook, which will struggle multitasking internet browsing with MSN messenging… Let alone be able to play any modern day game.

But let’s face it, your so called Notebook can only run on battery life for a couple of hours before being being a dead heavyweigt in it’s carrying bag. On the other hand, netbooks are designed exclusively for low power consumption, giving you 8 and more hours of battery life per charge…

I’ll be the first one to agree, in the near future, Netbooks will probably be phased out in favor of better, more energy efficient Notebooks of smaller size and weight, but the very existence of Netbooks made people realise that a Portable PC actually needs to be portable, not requiring to be constantly tethered to a power line to be of any use.

For anyone that needs daily computing on the go, having about 8 hours without a charge (which is coincidently the duration of a workday or school day) is a godsend . Besides, in the end of the day, you have a great PC at home anyway, so the need for a portable Notebook that can play high-end content is relatively low… Netbooks are the truly portable alternative to home PCs…

I bought a netbook because I wanted a power efficient PC that would last me for a whole school day of Microsoft Word, Powerpoint and internet reaserch in the middle of an amphitorium where no power sockets are avialable.

I’m sure I’m not the only person in need of such device, and I really don’t think anybody is stupid enough to try to use Smartphone or even Ibook to take notes during a course, unless they fancy trying to keep up with vocal speech on a virtual keyboard while typing on their viewing screen… And I doubt anyone with a 3 hour battery life Notebook can even think of using his device as a writing medium, let alone as a truly portable computer.

(How about looking at your screen and pressing your touch screen for 8 hours everyday).

Because many people want to use their PC in school during a 6 hour course

But having a portable Netbook you can use while sitting in the middle of an amphitorium during an university course

typing your course or watching a teacher’s power p

so why even need a beat of a Notebook when you can lug around a small notebok that allows you to check your mails, run Power Point presentations, and need a Portable PC for stuff like

, but Notebooks have crappy battery life… I mean why even make a battery powered device when the hardware inside drains said batteries in two hours, leaving you out of juice and scrambling for a power outlet. In the end, Notebooks are anything but portable… Sure it’s more useful than lugging arround a PC screen, speakers, a Tow

Of course you have smartphones and ibooks with virtual keyboards and similar things

. It’s not a ferrari and it won’t run high-end games and software, but it’s capable

Tidux October 16, 2010 at 9:47 pm

I did buy a netbook as a primary computer, and I’m typing this on it. I use Debian on it, and it’s fast enough for everything I need and want to do. I have a monitor, speakers, keyboard, and mouse that I can plug into this thing. Suddenly, it’s a desktop! I get to carry my primary system around campus in a normal backpack, and when I’m home I can reap the benefits of a larger screen and full-sized input devices.

JJ December 28, 2010 at 2:54 am

I got myself a Sony Vaio netbook last year. A W Series to be exact. It’s functionality is fine when I am taking notes for class, browsing the web in the most BASIC of sites, and little else.

I can’t make PowerPoint presentations, play games, use iTunes, or edit videos without significant slowdown, and the system was not that much cheaper than a standard laptop despite its rather compressed 1GB hard drive and barely-cuttin-it 1.6Ghz processor speed. The resolution is a joke and I can’t even install the software for my new camera (which I just got for Christmas), or my Blackberry because it does not have a disk drive.

Indeed, I got my netbook knowing that it would not perform up to the level of my previous laptop (a 17″ high end Sony Vaio which crashed, leaving half the hard drive inoperable), but my semi-functional laptop outperforms the netbook in almost every aspect, and it is a 2007 model!

I am getting a Sony Vaio CE series soon, and will keep the W as a backup. Nonetheless, I can’t wait to shelf it. I don’t think netbooks should be made “transitional” technology, they need to be rendered obsolete.

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