Greg's bite: The demise of the netbook?
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Greg's bite: The demise of the netbook?

By Greg Mills

I remember the day I bought my MacBook 100 computer. I paid a thousand dollars for it and was amazed that Apple packed all that power into such a small package with a keen black and white flat screen display.  

I was also using my trusty Mac Classic computer -- and going portable was awesome. I lived aboard my yacht in Newport Beach, California, at the time and 110 volts was common via an inverter running off eight 12-volt deep cycle batteries charged by solar panels. The new laptop was easy to charge and not so hard on my power supply. While both of those ancient computers are a joke by today's standards, I was able to do a lot with them.   

In comparison, I bought a new MacBook Pro for $999 just a week ago. The speed, display, memory and chip speed improvements made over the intervening 20 years is dramatic, to say the least. People want the most they can get for their money and incremental improvements add up over time, as prices drop for all that advanced technology.  

Form factors are a big part of what changes in computing devices. While desktop computers still offer a significant market for computing in a fixed location, so many of us are on the move that the "mobile computing" bug has bitten us hard. I find it amazing that I was ever satisfied with a desktop computer as my main computer, now that I am used to my MacBook Pro.  I still have to choose sometimes which device to check an incoming email with: iPhone, iPad or MacBook Pro.  The ding, dong, ding that rings three times when an email comes in, seems to load first with iPad or iPhone, with the MacBook Pro coming in last.

Wireless connections allow me print over the house Wi-Fi, which cleared my desk to a limited extent, as junk is attracted to my desktop like a magnet. The transitory form of a netbook is being replaced by the slate computer format very quickly.  Touch screens have made the hinged mechanical keyboard sort of an option we find we can do without. When Apple set the price point for the "magical" iPad at US$500 for the entry level, a subsonic "oh no" reverberated from Redmond where Microsoft killed their slate computer within days of actually getting an iPad in hand, for a comparison to what they had under development.

Had Apple played the high dollar approach and matched netback prices with iPad, it would have taken off, but not like it did. Standalone GPS devices, netbooks and other mobile devices were suddenly compared to the iPad, which could do everything well in comparison to one-item solutions. Apple's trump card is that software updates continue to improve already-sold hardware, often at no cost. How do you compete with that?  

The competition gets it, and now actual iPadish devices from other vendors are on the way. The problems they have to overcome are considerable. Apple is hogging the display market and buying up large color touch screens as fast as manufacturers can pump them out. Flash memory is spoken for months or years in advance by Apple. With a year's headstart catching up to Apple's iOS is no small matter.  

Microsoft frittering away the time while Apple surges has left its normal hardware "partners" adrift without a tablet OS that matters. In addition to all that, it takes a lot to make a profit anywhere near Apple's price points. Why fight Apple when there isn't any profit left after building a comparable touch screen slate computer?  

Some slate computer solutions are in the works that will come out next year.  Despite not matching Apple's aggressive price points, RIM is launching a tablet that they hope will find a home in business. Google is ramping up its Chrome NetBook platform and getting Android up to speed on larger screen devices. 

In an interesting turn of events, RIM is overcoming its lack of apps by allowing its new state computer, the "PlayBook" to run Android Apps. Since Microsoft has completely dropped the ball, Google has picked it up and is running with it. Microsoft recently launched Vista 7 mobile operating system isn't happening for slate computers; in fact it is really not happening for smart phones either, if early sales numbers are a valid forecast of future success.

The Microsoft Windows Stuxnet worm continues to plunge Iran's nuclear weapons program into chaos. Window computers associated with the plutonium refinement and nuclear reactor seem to be the only ones where the worm does its dirty work. It stays inactive unless it finds the right flavor of conditions that are exclusive to Iranian nuclear sites. They are suffering repeated PC reinfections and incomplete disinfection, which continues to make expensive equipment fail at alarming rates. The new reactor hasn't come on-line as the Iranians are very concerned it will blow up in their face if they do turn it on. It is certain a trick of the Windows Stuxnet worm is to fool with the turbine speed in the new Iranian reactor.  

Iranian computer experts are disappearing or being killed by agents of a foreign powers. Some tortured soul uttered the words "CIA, MI6 and Mossad" under the Iranian heated interrogation techniques (that require a propane blow torch). Now, armed with "confirmation" of their suspicions, they have threatened to retaliate and the three countries named have stepped up protection for their own logical targets.  

Iran is so clueless they don't know what to do. The web sites that have information on how to purge computers of Stuxnet have been overwhelmed by masked inquiries that have been found to have originated in Iran. One major web site had over 60% of its inquiries coming from Iran. The Russians who fled Iran are not willing to come back, fearing interrogation by the Iranians.

In another worrisome note, Saudi Arabia has made an end run around the entire nuclear proliferation process and simply purchased two nuclear bombs from Pakistan. The US has objected -- but not too loudly -- as we don't want to offend our Arab friends.  The Saudis fear the Iranian bomb almost as much as the Israelis do.  

The US military recently banned thumb drives and other recordable media that could infect their systems with worms, having seen how devastated Iran's military infrastructure is due to the Windows Stuxnet worm. Having been burned recently by low level traitors, they are now also reducing computer access to state secrets.

MakerBot has introduced an affordable 3D printer for making solid prototypes and actual 3D plastic parts. The notion with common "printers" is that we can hook up our computers with a USB cord, load paper into the device and print 2D on paper in color or black and white. The notion of a 3D printer is that a 3D computer "model" can be created as a 3D file, the computer is connected with a USB cord to a MakerBot 3D printer and an actual physical model of a solid object can be created. This is called rapid prototyping and is used in developing inventions and refining plastic parts.

Imagine having a chess set piece in your computer as a file, hooking up your computer to a 3D printer and in a few minutes an actual chess part made of plastic is "printed" one layer at a time.  Sort of a primitive StarTrek "replicator," if you will. Then consider that the files that run the MakerBot 3D printer can be downloaded over the Internet. 3D part files can be traded or sold over the Internet to create plastic parts, much as apps or other content are sold now

The price point of the new 3D Printers is at $999.  See http://support.makerbot.com/home .  The device its self is open source, so if you are so inclined, you can build your own 3D printer from exact plans on-line. The software is also open source and will run on a Mac. I will write more on this in the future, but MakerBot reminds me a lot of a computer company started in a garage some years ago.

That's Greg's bite for today.

(Greg Mills, is a Faux Artist in Kansas City. Formerly a new product R&D man for the paint sundry market, he holds 11 US patents. He's working on a solar energy startup, www.CottageIndustrySolar.com using a patent pending process of turning waste dual pane glass into thermal solar panels used to heat water. Greg writes for intellectual web sites and Mac related issues. See Greg's art web site at www.gregmills.info ; his email is gregmills@mac.com )

 
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