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Analog Angle Article

Old ideas can get a second (and maybe even third) shot at success

One of this year's hot PC trends is the netbook, a basic, sub-$500 laptop-like PC focused on handling email, web browsing, and office tasks, and not designed for playing CDs or video-intensive activities. They typically weigh about 2 pounds (1 kg) and available from Hewlett Packard, Asus, Fujitsu, and others. While they are not ideal for everyone's situation–hey, nothing ever is–they do fit the needs of many users who want a full-size (or nearly so) QWERTY keyboard and display, connectivity, and portability without unneeded bells and whistles, yet find an advanced phone such as the iPhone not a good fit for various reasons.

I like the idea of netbooks, and they are also a good example of how advances in multiple technologies can bring a discarded idea back to life. About 10 years ago, I purchased a used Hewlett Packard Jornada 820 (see here and here), which was an early netbook, although that term had not yet been invented; they were called pocket PCs or palmtop PCs, although you would certainly need a very large pocket to tote one around. It was a pretty handy unit, with stripped-down version of Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Internet Explorer running under Windows CE. The ROM-based Jornada had no hard disk, and was instant on, with run time of about 10 hours on a full charge.

For various reasons, that product line died and became a dead-end stub on the PC evolutionary tree, or so I thought (the specifics would probably make a good case study!).Yes, the Jornada was somewhat slow, screen quality was only moderate, connectivity was limited, and the browser couldn't be upgraded. It had the right idea, and I liked taking it with me on both local and longer trips. But sales and market buzz never really happened, so HP dropped the concept.

Actually, the netbook idea has been around for quite a while. In the pre-web and-Internet days of 1983, Radio Shack sold a portable unit called the TRS-100, and it was very popular with people who had to travel. There still is a cult following for this unit, especially among collectors, you can read about it here. One specification still amazes me: this unit ran for about 15 hours on four standard AA batteries, which is still an impressive achievement. The TRS-100 may look crude today, but it remains an outstanding unit which both presaged today's netbooks and also shows what very good design, component selection, and overall execution can accomplish.

Obviously, today's available IC components and displays are far more capable than those of 10 and 20 years ago, and engineers can use either large flash-memory blocks or physically tiny hard drives with the 100-GB range capacity for their designs. Thus, while user needs and expectations have also increased dramatically compared to those earlier days, the netbook is on its second new life as a viable portable PC option.

The lesson here is that just because a product concept isn't successful the first time doesn't mean it was a bad idea or can't be successful years later, in a updated design. Changes in available technologies, as well as user expectations and priorities, may make it a good idea the second or third time around. That's the good news. But the bad news is that today's brutally demanding markets and timelines for profitability probably won't allow for those second or third chances, and that's very unfortunate in many ways.♦

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