Lenovo on the future of the netbook

May 9, 2009

Lenovo on the future of the netbook The introduction of the netbook has heralded an era of cheap, portable and convenient computing, but what does the future hold for the netbook? TECH.BLORGE spoke to Lenovo’s Worldwide Competitive Analyst, Matt Kohut, about his vision of the future of netbooks, which involves Windows 7, bigger screens, built-in 3G, touch integration, and lower prices.

Linux fans will no doubt be disappointed that Kohut predicts that Windows 7 will be the dominant operating system on netbooks in the future. According to Kohut, the reason for this is that Windows 7 offers a better, familiar solution, with the benefits of touch.

Kohut also addresses the interesting issue of the intersection between netbooks and notebooks, and the challenges that vendors face. Here then, is the interview:

TECH.BLORGE: So how do you see netbooks evolving in the next few years?

Kohut: The original (netbook) designs were all based on an Intel reference design that Intel produced at about the time that the Atom chip came out.

That’s why the first generation netbooks were all very similar, and now that we have gone beyond the first generation and we are starting to see second and third generation netbooks.

Initially people weren’t sure what to do with them. Retailers were saying, "here’s this new netbook PC", and the average person picked one up and said, "oh wow, that’s small, maybe I can run photo shop". So, as an industry, we ended up with a lot of returns, because the functionality of what netbooks could do was not well communicated.

What happened too is that, with any first-generation design, it’s pretty limited function.

The average netbook has an Atom processor and either has some kind of solid-state memory drive or perhaps a spinning drive, it’s got a basic amount of memory, and it is probably running Windows.

Now, people are asking for more functions, so as we move into the next generation, we are starting to see things like integrated 3G and bigger screens.

There is no reason why a netbook has to be a small system.

People say, "maybe if we go 12 or 14 inches as we go to larger systems, I just need the system to do basic things, but I don’t need something that is super expensive either."

Now, from a vendor perspective, it’s also been kind of interesting for us too, because as the subsequent netbooks get introduced, some of the competition is trying to push the price points higher.

But, with standard notebook prices coming down, you start to see an intersection where, well, does it make more sense to just buy a notebook with the lower end Celeron processor so that it can do everything you want it to do versus buying a higher end netbook that is going to be limited in some way?

So, that’s been one challenge.

The other challenge has been, in order to keep the price points down, a lot of people thought that Linux would be the saviour of all of these netbooks.

You know, there were a lot of netbooks loaded with Linux, which saves $50 or $100 or whatever it happens to be, based on Microsoft’s pricing and, again, from an industry standpoint, there were a lot of returns because people didn’t know what to do with it.

Linux, even if you’ve got a great distribution and you can argue which one is better or not, still requires a lot more hands-on than somebody who is using Windows.

So, we’ve seen overwhelmingly people wanting to stay with Windows because it just makes more sense: you just take it out of the box and it’s ready to go.

TECH.BLORGE: So, where do you see netbooks going in the next year, the next five years, and, if you are willing to speculate, even beyond that?

Kohut: Over the next six months, you are going to see a lot of 3G built into these.

You know, our first netbook had an express card slot where you could add a 3G card later, but a lot of people said that we need it built-in, so that’s why we are seeing a lot of people or a lot of telecom companies bundling – you know, sign up for two years service and get a netbook and, of course, they want you to use their 3G plans and get hooked and maybe you will do all sorts of other things.

The big change comes late this year, depending on when Microsoft releases Windows 7.

Windows 7 is going to have, not a true netbook version, but a version intended to work especially well on netbooks.

One of the cool things that Windows 7 does is touch.

So, it’s not far off to have a netbook where you have full touch integration built into it and not just drag/drop but full multi-touch where you’ve got all the gestures, you know, the flicks… I’m not a touch user, but you get my point.

You know, the pinch, the drag and that sort of thing.

There has been a lot of work on that: Microsoft really, with its Surface initiative, if you remember that, it was big, the size was boardroom, and I actually got a chance to see it, it’s slick.

But, what they are trying to do, is they are trying to replicate that in the netbook world or even in the standard notebook form factor as well.

One of the challenges is, as these screens especially get smaller with touch, I don’t know whether you have ever tried to use an iPhone or not, but when you type, sometimes it thinks you type the G and sometimes it thinks you type the H.

So, one of our focus areas specifically is how do we overlay on top of what Windows is offering certain things where we can bring up – if you are going to bring in touch, how do we overlay common tabs so that now we can enter numbers, how do we make the keypad bigger, for example, for that certain thing?

And that’s been a huge area of focus and we’ve had a lot of ideas, everything from, "who says you should just have to use the predefined gestures, why not make your own, so that when you gesture a circle, it launches your e-mail client for example?"

And people get touch, it’s yet another way another way of interacting with your system.

TECH.BLOGE: And what about beyond the next year? Where will these products evolve to?

Kohut: Over the next five years, we are going to see a lot of different sizes of netbook.

So, today you see the 10 inch, moving into the 12 inch, price points are only going to keep dropping across the industry; that’s a given.

TECH.BLORGE: Price points, dropping? Really?

Kohut: If you had told me five years ago that I was going to see a regularly selling notebook for $799 and it was going to be a full function notebook, I would have said you were crazy.

But, now look what we have today.

Even on special you can get notebooks for a lot less than that.

What has really helped is that Intel and all the other vendors are getting better at getting the whole system integrated on the chip. With the newest generation of processors, for example, you have your chip, your processor, plus your Northbridge, your Southbridge, and memory controller which is separate, now they are integrating them into the processor.

It’s to the point where the average user of the standard PC, not so much for the big storage for your videos or what not, want 80 GB or 120 GB.

The price points there keep dropping.

So, price points are only going to drop and, with that, come more degrees of freedom, more functionality, bigger sizes, more sizes and, with that, will also come a lot of integration, better with the different types of devices you own – your mobile phones, your Bluetooth headsets, your iPods and your iPhones and what not.

So, we can see a whole lot of proliferation coming.

Every time I think it can’t get cheaper, it does.

And, it’s also an industry problem because now we have to sell three or four of these in order to meet the same revenues that we were getting from one notebook.

TECH.BLORGE: Where do notebooks fit into this whole thing?

Kohut: Notebooks aren’t going to go away, because again, one of the things that is helping us as an industry is that Intel is trying very hard to limit what netbooks can do.

Again, that’s why they are always touted as “surf the web”, e-mail, and that’s about it, so a lot of companies recognize that it wouldn’t be worthwhile to give their employees netbooks instead of notebooks.

But, you know what, the pace of computing also marches on.

Even with my full-size notebook, there are some websites that I go to, Facebook is a good example, where I have to wait for it to load and it’s even worse, for example, on the netbook.

With applications such as Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes and Java, there is still a need for full function computing, even if you are a not a corporate user, even if you are a home user, you are still going to have somebody who wants to play games, you are still going to have certain applications and sites that require additional horsepower.

So, there is still going to be a need for notebooks: some people will see netbooks as second devices, as companion devices – I just want to grab this when I go off to do whatever – but, other people are going to say, well, why own two things where I’ve got to worry about syncing them, where I need to make sure that the data is the same as on my other notebook. So, some people just don’t want that hassle either.

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23 Responses to “Lenovo on the future of the netbook”

  1. Rocket007:

    “So, we’ve seen overwhelmingly people wanting to stay with Windows because it just makes more sense: you just take it out of the box and it’s ready to go.”

    This assertion is completely wrong and demonstrate that Mr Matt Kohut, even if he is considered a very good analyst, has probably 1) never installed a Windows machine 2) never installed a Linux machine neither.

    If people “stay with Windows” it is mainly because of these associated factors:
    1) FUD about Linux (or other OSes indeed) fueled by Microsoft and Co.
    2) Massive intellectual laziness present at “overwhelmingly people”

  2. Henri Beaton:

    Linux is an efficient, lean operating system that works well on low spec hardware, which makes it ideal for netbooks. God help us all if Microsoft manages to get its teeth into netbook market. It’ll be another cycle of having to buy new hardware to run bloated operating systems, which all kind of misses the point of low-cost, versatile netbooks.

  3. Roger Milson:

    Perhaps Linux fanboys need to realise that most of the world uses Windows, so that’s what most of the world is used to. Rightly or wrongly, people are going to want on their netbook, what they’ve got on their desktop PC or notebook.

  4. Freddy Jonas:

    superuser is worse than UAC… (ok, maybe not) Linux is awesome, but not ready for the masses who don’t have an IT staff to tweak their image. Linux is vexing to those who support the idea of open source, but don’t have the time or skill to navigate the endless FAQs needed to complete simple tasks (play DVD’s, etc..). The key points of a netbook is ease, portability and its “appliance” nature. If there were a way to develop an instant on environment and purpose optimize the device a la kindle, then that’s great. However, windows will rule until an easy GUI is developed that does not require a background in technology to use. The first poster is right, there is definitely some intellectual laziness out there, but I’d also argue that there are people without time to learn an OS during late night camel lights/sierra nevada fueled geek sessions. The iLife suite is a POS, but it’s easy to learn and use, and that’s one reason why apple has been so successful. If pcs were marketed solely to technology-inclined people, it would be a different story. Do you really think Joe the Plumber would be able to burn ubuntu isos and learn to use linux without getting frustrated?

  5. Aquaadverse:

    Linux doesn’t require anymore IT skill than Windows. The difference is people have Windows pre-installed with the vendor presumably having all the correct hardware drivers and system settings done. If you handed a Windows OEM disk to an average consumer they would be just as lost.

    Once it’s installed it needs far less work than a WIndows OS, the software that was installed from the repository will automatically up. No other OS had the ability to update every piece of software update with no user intervention.

    Firefox looks and works the same on Windows or Linux. Windows is a crap fest of an OS with a horrible architecture in the registry. Calling Windows an “easy” GUI is hilarious.

    Come back when Windows has a Live CD/DVD and you can have a full functional OS just from booting from the media.

    Now go to the repair console in Windows and use your Joe the Plumber analogy.

    Linux is only vexing to people who only know the horrible Microsoft OS.

    OSX? BSD a true ‘nix.
    Linux is not a Unix derivative, but it uses the same structure and syntax.

    Once configured, Linux is rock solid and self updating. Clicking on icons or drop down menus is the same. The biggest reason for Linux not being popular is because you can’t buy it preinstalled.

    The idea that an OS requires constant fiddling and troubleshooting speaks volumes about how bad Windows really is. OSX doesn’t require it, nor does Linux.

  6. Freddy Jonas:

    Let’s be honest – Joe the Plumber probably cannot operate a toaster.

  7. Freddie Jones:

    Let’s be honest – Joe the Plumber is from the 20th century and is in the retirement home.

  8. Kurt Meas:

    Linux is for servers. It’s been built from the ground up for servers. It’s been optimised for servers. Putting linux on a desktop/notebook/netbook is a retarded pipedream in the world of script kiddies.

    Ubuntu and the likes are jokes, they’re hobby OSs at best. Desktop linux doesn’t have serious applications (the ones that actually run work better on windows, btw) and the clumsy interfaces and CLI make it hell to maintain.

  9. Anonymous:

    In no way was he bashing Linux. Any true Linux user will tell you that it is a better operating system than Windows, but it is still an operating system primarily for the technologically inclined or those in the industry. Ubuntu is arguably the most end-user friendly distro, but it is still a far cry from ready to go “out of the box” and is nowhere near as minimal of a set up as offerings from Apple, HP, Dell, and the like. Try and run Linux without using bash, or any other command line. You won’t get much done. Try and teach a kindergartner to compile from source, good luck. But I bet the same kid could pop a CD in a Windows machine and be playing the game on it 5 minutes later.

  10. Pete Dixon:

    Two thumbs up on the idea that Linux is easier to maintain. If a hard drive that hasn’t been ghosted blows up in an office I take care off it would take a day of CD feeding and 70 reboots to restore it to its previous state. With Linux the equivalent work MIGHT be two hours and be much simpler.

    And at this point some of the core apps are actually better than the Windows versions. K3B for example. Inkscape is wonderful. Gnumeric does everything I need a spreadsheet to do.

    The only advantage to Windows these days is platform lock-in and user ignorance. Certainly most every home user would do better with Linux these days.

  11. Joe the Plumber:

    Hey! leave me alone, I can work a toaster and my preferred Linux distro is Slackware

  12. jpkotta:

    >There is no reason why a netbook has to be a small system.

    What? Is that not the point? Netbooks are compact, cheap, and low power. Take away the compact and you have a good laptop, but it’s not really a netbook. It’s not something I want to carry around all day.

  13. hwertz:

    I wouldn’t be surprised Lenovo had low Linux sales — when I *DID* look for Lenovos, they’d have some odd model with only SLED (Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop), which, like most Enterprise distros, is rather out of date.

    Dell’s claimed ~33% of the Mini 9′s ship with Ubuntu, and similar return rates for the Windows and Linux ones.

    Lenovo can do what they want, but I gaurantee I will *NOT* buy another machine with Microsoft software bundled — Lenovo’s lost my sale.

  14. Vegard Engen:

    Linux is the *perfect* OS for the non-savvy users. It’s those who have already learnt Windows and have the misperception that they know how an OS works, when in reality they have just memorized menu-entries, that are the problem.

    I’ve not done too much Linux-pushing myself – but those who gets constant calls about “cleaning up” Windows-boxes of friends and family, should *really* just install Linux for them. I have friends who do exactly that, and *poof* – the number of free support calls go rock bottom – and half a year later, one can ask – “hey, did you ever use that Linux I installed for you?”, and get “Yes! It’s great! It works all the time. I’ve never had any troubles with it at all!”.

    Updating Linux is easy as hell, and likewise is most graphical package managers.

    The only things that is hard, is to make it perform exactly as Windows. Because that’s not what it’s designed for.

    Now, the people who are used to and need special software that only exist on Windows is much harder to convert. But really, it’s the same the other way, it’s just that converting from Linux to Windows isn’t that usual, so you’re not likely to hear about it :)

    But beginners? Give them Linux, and they’ll *never* miss Windows!

  15. edmundronald:

    Lenovo have worked carefully to add features which make their products robust, easier to use and maintain than a vanilla Microsoft PC.

    I own a Thinkpad tablet. Press a key during boot and it goes into a service menu, and can then restore itself completely from a hidden partition. I’ve done it, and although it’s a lengthy process (2 hours or so) it is totally automated, no interaction needed.

    I bought the tablet for that feature; when I start a new development job, I want virgin machine.

    So, I would listen carefully to Lenovo’s take on the market. I’ve done about a hundred Linux installs, and still use it for some purposes; and guess what, although I prefer Linux to Windows, for my personal purposes I moved to Mac.

  16. Ralph:

    Spread the word, boycott Lenovo. Lets spend our money elsewhere.

  17. Ron:

    “Linux is for servers. It’s been built from the ground up for servers.”

    That’s objectively false, given this quote from Linus himself: “I have never, ever cared about really anything but the Linux desktop.”

  18. David:

    I have a Dell Mini 9 with Ubuntu and it is *completely* “ready out of the box”. I’ve seen some other linux netbooks that looked amateurish, but the Mini 9 is really polished, professional, and simple to use.

    Admittedly, most folks I’ve shown it to are bewildered at first that it doesn’t run Windows. However, no one seems to have trouble using it. Most people will pick Windows simply out of name-recognition, not because of any actual difficulty with the Ubuntu desktop.

    The real battle will take place when netbooks hit $150-200, where the difference between free/oss and proprietary software will mean doubling the price. I expect the general public to lose their “fear of the unknown” in a hurry.

  19. Scott Marlowe:

    I have recently bought a Lenovo SL400 which runs vista (rarely) and ubuntu (mostly). It will probably be my last thinkpad if this is lenovo’s mentality.

  20. sys admin:

    While it may be difficult for us Linux fans to hear it, it’s an important reality check to hear that people prefer Windows on their netbooks.

    I’ve been using Linux for 10 years, first on server and then on the desktop. I run a few CentOS servers and I have Ubuntu 9.04 running on my laptop under dual-boot.

    Running Ubuntu Linux as a desktop offers certain technical advantages over Windows, for example I only have to re-format my Linux boxen when I upgrade versions, every 2 years or so. However my Windows boxen have to be re-formatted every 11 months or so.

    Then again, Photoshop is awesome. Also, and I hate to say this, I saved a file from Microsoft Office 2007 in .doc (word 2003 format). When I read it in OpenOffice under Linux, the first 6 lines of the table were not visible.

    I don’t get why Archie wants Veronica when Betty is waiting for him. I don’t get why Linux isn’t content with ruling the server instead of going after the desktop.

  21. Ralph:

    Well at least this time Matt Kohut wasn’t clueless this time …unlike the last time “attempted to” talk about Linux.

  22. eduardo:

    I notice the author of the article was very careful to not ask the Lenovo guy about the sub-$220 ARM netbooks that are coming out later this year. My guess is that they talked beforehand and the Lenovo guy asked him to not bring up the subject. I suppose that means Lenovo is not going to be one of the ARM oem’s, but doesn’t want to admit it just yet.

  23. Jesse B Andersen:

    I agree with jpkotta’s statement.

    Why we buy netbooks?
    1. Price
    2. Compact and portable size

    I absolutely detest the idea of creating laptop sized netbooks. I mean that’s stupid. I buy netbooks because of their size. I hate laptops because they aren’t really portable, at least not as portable as netbooks.

    One thing I do want is better specs in netbooks. I think the Alienware M11X is a step in the right direction. It’s small and powerful.

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