One of my former co-workers recently sent me Joey deVilla’s article about netbooks and the “zone of suck.” This article makes a good case for why netbooks–those wee computers that are smaller than a breadbox but larger than a McDonald’s apple “pie”–are in a middle zone that is a solution looking for a problem. They’re more portable than a laptop, but less portable than a smart phone; they’re more powerful than a smart phone, but puny compared even to a low-end laptop. In other words, why bother?
And if we’re putting the average netbook (like my Dell mini) up against laptops and smart phones, I think that argument is dead on. But that’s not a game, I would argue, that the netbook should be playing; let the laptop be the portable power platform, and the smart phone be the ubiquitous pocket rocket. For me, the netbook has the potential to be a Kindle-killer.
I’m not a great partisan of the e-book; 16th century technology is fine, thank you, for most of my reading needs, at least when it comes to reading for pleasure. But I can see the value of the e-book in some situations:
- Out-of-print, public-domain books available through sources like Project Gutenberg
- “Long tail” books that have a small niche appeal that makes print publication prohibitively expensive
- “Soft” books with volatile content, like technical manuals or current affairs studies
- “Disposable” books–“beach reads”–that leave only lingering traces in the reader, and so should leave fewer on the shelves
I could also imagine loading up a thumb drive with vacation reading before a trip. My usual modus operandi is to pack a few books for the road, but inevitably it turns out that one or more of the books I’ve brought along isn’t worth carrying, and I often run out of material at the end of the trip and am at the mercy of the airport newsstand (the horror! If I’ve missed The New Yorker or The Atlantic summer fiction special, I have to choose between The Economist and People).
Most netbooks have pre-installed, or can very easily run, an e-book program capable of reading most standard file formats. FBReader, for example, comes with the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, which in addition to reading things like plucker and orb files, also has the handy feature of letting you turn the display 90 degrees so you can read the screen like a page.
At $359, Amazon’s Kindle is a price-point match for the netbook as an e-book reader. And with its slim profile, “electronic ink” interface, and cool-kid factor, the Kindle tromps the netbook as a dedicated e-reader. But the netbook has a few advantages over the Kindle:
- You don’t have to pay Amazon to subscribe to blogs or read the news.
- You can do more than read e-books on it. Though the keyboard is cramped, you can do some light typing (like this blog post), work with web applications, and read your e-mail.
- You’re not bound by the Amazon monoculture. Let it not be forgotten, the Kindle and the DRM-laden format it supports are proprietary creatures of Amazon; the formats supported by e-reader software are open and accessible to any publishing and distribution service.
There are a couple of things that would greatly improve the netbook’s utility in the e-reader space: improvements in design, and improvements in ecology.
The design of most netbooks, for example, is derived from their laptop progenitors; the result is a screen and keyboard that are very much in the “zone of suck,” simply too small to be all they could be without sacrificing portability. As an e-reader device, the screen should be bigger, and the keyboard somehow less obtrusive (folding against the back of the screen for easier handheld reading? sliding out from the screen? virtually popping up on screen?). Clever people, no doubt, are working this out.
To really play against the Kindle, though, netbooks would need to have an infrastructure to support them as an e-book platform. The Kindle, of course, has Amazon, which relentlessly leverages its search and delivery system to make buying and downloading e-books seamless. For the open platform e-book reader, things are much looser: Gutenberg and other services, a few publishers like O’Reilly, and some public libraries make e-book acquisition easy enough, but highly decentralized. What the e-book environment really needs, if it’s going to be a viable platform outside Amazon’s control, is a clearinghouse (or competing clearinghouses) of titles, covering a broad range of topics and easily searched and browsed. No doubt some nascent clearinghouse or consortium (I can’t help but think of the IndieBound model for bookshops) is out there already, just waiting to rise out of the digital morass.