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Apple iPad vs netbooks: fight not over yet

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Analysis Apple CEO Steve Jobs was rather dismissive of the netbook at the iPad's launch last night. He needed to be: he was trying to win over journalists and analysts who've spent the last 18 months or so asking when his company will release just such a product - and telling readers why it really should.

Jobs' criticisms were certainly unfounded. He slammed them as "slow" and sporting "low-quality displays". The problem with them, he said, is that " netbooks aren't better than anything".

Wrong on most counts, Steve.

Current-generation netbooks provide a decent all-day battery life - a point he didn't mention - and, with add-ins like Nvidia's Ion, can play HD video without choking. They’re a darn sight more portable that your average laptop. Intel's Atom CPUs aren't as fast as larger laptops, it's true, but neither are they so slow that you can't get work done on them.

We know, we've done so. We've covered major shows using netbooks for writing, photo editing and publishing. Sure they won't play Crysis but neither will the iPad.

The screens, yes, could be better, but the iPad's 1024 x 768 display isn't so very much more spacious that a netbook's 1024 x 600 screen.

But netbooks are clunky: fatter and thicker than the iPad, though there's not much to choose between them when it comes to weight, we note. And punters don't quite know what netbooks are for. Too many folk have bought netbooks thinking they're simply small, cheap laptops rather than something you grab off the shelf when you need to just check a website, your email or post a TwitBook update.

That's why people had such a problem with the early, SSD-equipped Linux-based netbooks: they wouldn't run the apps that their larger, Windows-based notebooks would.

Neither, of course, will the iPad, but that doesn't matter because, for one point, the tablet is clearly not going to be mistaken for a personal computer - as we've understood them thus far to be, at least - and, for a second, because there are no shortage of iPhone apps to run on it.

And if you think that's not a problem for netbooks, ask yourself why Intel is doing so much work to encourage software developers to punt netbook-centric apps through the online store it has set up.

No, the only real difference between netbook and iPad - the price of the two devices being much of a muchness - is the presence of the real keyboard. If you view the netbook as a device for consumer content rather than content creation - which is how the likes of Intel, Microsoft and other interested parties pitch them - you don't really require the kind of keyboard designed for heavy data input.

Conversely, if that's precisely why you want a portable device's keyboard to be able to do, you're using your netbook as a small laptop, which is not a role the iPad is entirely designed to fulfill and so wouldn't tempt you in any case.

We can't see the iPad pulling the rug from under netbook makers' feet, though we think all those Windows 7 MID prototypes Taiwanese vendors have been touting for the last few years may not now make it into full-scale production. If they want to sell me-too tablet products, they'll need something better.

But netbooks' future is limited. They'll get touchscreens, and Windows will get better at working with touch control, and then they'll become Tablet PCs before finally morphing into keyboard-less devices like... the iPad. ®

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