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Linux weaktops poised for death by smartphone

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Fail and You Smartphones have been around for a long time, but only recently did the laptop industry figure out that it could cut into the market funded solely by tech nerds' f*ck-you money with a compound word of its own: netbook.

A computer that carries light on the hardware and is designed to run programs provided as network resources is nothing new. Entrepreneurs and engineers have been reinventing this device since the days of the Unix terminal. However, as smartphone hardware gets faster and cheaper, the browser-only computer is going to have itself a double dose of irrelevance.

The internet terminal computer started as a classic imaginary problem that engineers wanted to solve: People are hungry to use the internet but don't want to spend a lot of money on a computer. This theory brought us wonderful creations such as WebTV and Larry Ellison's New Internet Computer. Whatever the stated motivations for these projects may be, there are only two real reasons they were created: Silicon Valley engineers think that the internet is the end-all-be-all of computing and have a bloated sense of social responsibility that borders on a savior complex. This recently culminated in the comically altruistic One Laptop Per Child project, which proved once and for all that good intentions are no match for government bureaucracy.

In the end, though, the internet terminal did not solve any real problems that people have. That, of course, doesn't stop us from re-branding it and trying again. If you make a product enough times, consumers will learn to want it.

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Fortunately for the companies involved, the next iteration of this idea would be run by the marketing teams, not the engineers. This time, the pitch changed. Instead of "all you really need is the internet," it's now "all you really need is a cheap, underpowered laptop." And thus, the weaktop was born.

ASUS was first with the Eee PC, and they had the right idea: a cheap gizmo that runs Linux so it appeals to freetards. If the technology is cool enough, it can overpower the sysop's questionable hygiene and turn him into a trend setter. Everyone else will want a small, lightweight laptop. That strategy backfired a little bit, though. MSI, another vendor, found out that normal users don't have a clue what Linux is and have better shit to do with their time than to learn it. Users were returning Linux weaktops at a much higher rate than Windows ones. Oops.

Software issues aside, these things sell pretty well. Or, at least they did when people had disposable income. In August of this year, weaktop sales were expected to hit 50 million by 2012. Interestingly, August of this year also brought predictions that mortgage-backed securities were a sound investment. We're still waiting to see Q4 sales figures, but I've got this hunch that consumers may be cutting back spending in the shit-they-don't-need category of goods.

The weaktop industry is about to be t-boned by competition from smartphones. Weaktops and smartphones are converging toward the same device: a small, lightweight computer with constant internet access. Users face some pain downsizing their computing platform to a weaktop, but a smartphone that gets more powerful isn't a trade-off – it's just an excuse to spend more money. Both devices support the same kinds of light computing: word processing, web browsing, and simple games. The only real difference is the size of the screen and the fact that a smartphone can, well, make phone calls.

The problem that weaktops face, especially when competing against something like the iPhone, is setting user expectations. Nobody ever counts on a phone being able to edit video or photos. A weaktop, on the other hand, looks and acts like a full featured laptop, so it's easy for users to get confused about its capabilities. Intel saw this coming, and warned users not to use weaktops powered by their Atom CPU for much of anything beyond web browsing and checking e-mail. That's funny. I know of another device that can't support much beyond web browsing and checking e-mail, but is backed by the full faith and credit of Steve Jobs's divinity.

A Fistful of Computing

Since it's so underpowered, yet looks as if it should actually do useful shit, the weaktop occupies a bizarre purgatory subspace of the computer market. The intended target was people who can do all of their computing with web applications, but the actual target was people who are into gadgets and have $300 to burn. Making a business case for one of these things is hard, because for a few hundred dollars more, you can buy a full-featured laptop. Considering that most business users need to do some CPU intensive tasks every now and then, it seems that reality is about to give the Eee PC and the like a swift kick in the market share.

The smartphone, on the other hand, captures the weaktop's intended market nicely. A busy San Francisco digerati who need constant access to the web to watch Facebook friend connections and Twitters his every vapid thought is much more likely to have an iPhone than an Eee PC. After all, the Eee PC isn't powerful enough to run MySQL and Ruby on Rails, and coffee-shop pecking order dictates that iPhone users are served their chai lattes before anyone else, because they are Yelp-reviewing the establishment as they wait.

Compare this to an on-the-go enterprise software sales rep who needs an e-mail IV drip, a mobile phone to convince his wife that he really is at a sales meeting, and access to Google to figure out how to get a stripper's tit-glitter out of his hair (hint: shower twice). Both of these gems of the tech industry will be better serviced by the fruit of Apple's loins.

If weaktops and smartphones do have a battle royale in the coming years, the real losers are going to be IT workers who need to support more platforms. I have a feeling that I'm not the only one who will feel nostalgic about the days when commerce could work without constant internet access. As destructive as it's going to be, the Rise of the Machines will be strangely satisfying. ®

Ted Dziuba is a co-founder at Milo.com You can read his regular Reg column, Fail and You, every other Monday.

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