A panelist of management and marketing execs who work on netbooks tried to explain the exciting new future of the tiny laptops this morning at GigaOM’s Mobilize 09 conference in San Francisco.
Unfortunately, the panel quickly turned into a discussion of under-the-hood components I could’ve gotten from PC World. But for the first few minutes, there was real vision onstage.
“People are buying [netbooks] as PC companion devices,” said Don Paterson, a director of marketing from Microsoft’s Windows Business Group. Paterson said netbooks’ mix of better-than-a-MacBook mobility and cheaper-than-a-Dell pricepoint combined to make the little laptops a hit. For instance, Paterson has an office worker friend who isn’t allowed to use his work PC for anything but work. During his daily lunch hour, the guy whips out a netbook to poke around the Internet.
Session moderator Mark Spoonauer, editor-in-chief of reputable Laptop magazine, repeatedly slapped down panelists’ enthusiasm for netbooks equipped with a $60-per-month subscription 3G wireless connection. But Keith Kressin, a senior director of marketing and product management for Qualcomm’s CDMA technologies, disagreed with Spoonauer’s assertion that no one would pay 60 bucks a month for Internet on a laptop they’d scrimped to buy. “They see the value of connectivity,” he said. Moreover, buyers aren’t as broke as they’ve been made out to be. “People buy a cheap PC with 3G service,” Kressin said. “As more people want multiple devices with wireless access, [wireless service] plans are going to have to go more by user than by device.” What he means is Verizon, for example, should acknowledge that I have both a smartphone and a netbook with Verizon wireless service. They should only overcharge me on one, not both.
Netbook fans, Kressin said, aren’t planning to get rid of their main PC. But they do want portable internet access, the panelists agreed, despite the relatively high price of a service plan compared to a netbook.
The next revision of netbooks, which Qualcomm has begun calling smartbooks (think smartphone + notebook) will have much better graphics performance, notably longer battery life, and 3G wireless options, panelists said. Intel’s upcoming Pine Trail CPU, which incorporates graphics processing and memory control onto the same piece of silicon as the central processor, will boost performance enough to handle full-on Flash videos, Intel Netbook General Manager Noury A-Khaledy said. Battery life will also jump significantly because of less power-hungry display screens.
The panel didn’t focus on price points as they’d promised, but they did seem to unanimously disagree with Spoonauer that 3G networking was overpriced and not appropriate for a downsized notebook. It could be groupthink, it could be hands-on managers not buying into the personal vision of a journalist. Or it could be there’s another, totally different product none of us see coming that will change our idea of what we need and want, inventions like the iPhone and, of course, netbooks.