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July 08, 2009



Great post (long, as usual too).

I'd take smartphones in this fight personally. Even in those use cases where a PC-like interface is better, the smartphone allows one to grow functionality, not diminish it so that its more portable.

What I'd like to see most is that battery tech pick up. Smartphones (and netbooks) will stay niche until manufacturers start thinking like the OLPC folks and aim for better functionality with less power expended (which goes beyond just making something smaller).

Emily W.

I think you're missing how uncomfortable the visuals become on such a small screen. Most of my information intake online is through reading, I'd rather have a netbook with an adaptable PixelQi screen that makes reading online (or books or documents) pleasant, and can also be used for video, but only using as much power as is needed for each (i.e. I'd like to be able to turn off the backlight and connectivity and read for up to 12 hours at a go, but also check email or watch a movie if I feel like it). I'd rather have a fully capable netbook plus a basic cell phone for reachability and SMS (and music player), at an affordable rate. Then again I'm American so maybe perspective determines preferences...and where you lay your money on this matchup.

Tomi Ahonen

Hi ARJ and Emily

Thank you for the comments. Will reply to both individually

ARJ - thanks. Good observation that one "side" grows while the other "dimishes" its range of abilities. Hadn't thought of it that way ha-ha.. Very good.

About battery, yes, but its a problem we'll probably have into perpetuity. I saw a pair of graphs a while back, by someone working with phone batteries, showing processing power (exponential curve) and battery power (linear curve) so it won't be getting better, ha-ha, it will be getting worse. Recently we've had a temporary improvement due to the unanticipated reversal of the "my phone is smaller" race, with the wide big screen of the iPhone and now we have larger phones than 2 years ago. Expect the thinner-smaller race to resume again putting added strain to the battery..

Emily - very good points and yes, I agree with you. A larger screen is certainly preferred (as is the larger keyboard). I for example right now use my laptop to post this, not my phone. But that comes back to the 30 minute / 30 second metaphor. We both, you and me, have some 30 minute tasks like you reading this long essay and me writing it. And we both have 30 second tasks that arrive to our phones. So there is a valid use-case for both types of devices, and we'd both prefer to have both devices.

That guarantees a significant market size for both devices, right? But now, consider the two major areas of people who won't have both.

One is people in the developed world who have never gotten a PC (some of our parents and uncles and aunts and perhaps grandparents). Some of them have a PC, others don't. But even in America, almost all older folks have a phone today.

So when their bank starts to push e-banking and m-banking services (to save money for the bank, to be able to close down more of their branches) - the "easy" upgrade is for the elderly person who already has a phone, already votes in American Idol and already send MMS picture messages to the grandkids, to expand mobile phone data behavior to include m-banking - when the alternate is to go buy a PC, have it installed, then get broadband, have that installed, then figure out how the banking service works on the PC, etc...

The other is obviously the developing world (70% of all phone accounts) where mobile phones outnumber PCs by ratios of 10 to 1 and better. So there the common use will be smartphone or feature-phone, and a PC is a very distant wish, if one wins the lottery or something. Remember most people can't afford to buy a newspaper and don't have a TV (but do have a mobile phone)

So your view is very valid, it helps illustrate part of the market that is "safe" for netbooks and can't really be "stolen" by smartphones..

Thank you both for writing

Tomi Ahonen :-)

Varun Narula

Here's another view point - netbooks and smartphones may not necessarily be competing, but as technology improves in all respects, a device would evolve call it the 'smartbook' 'netphone' or whatever you may choose that will have the most useful features of today's smartphone (always on) and netbooks ( more
computing power etc.). Rising from the ashes, as one may call it, because a few years from now, today's smartphones would be considered dumb and netbooks antique paperweights.

That's another thought - none of these devices have so far destroyed the paper. Would the smartbook / netphone achieve that ?

Sachendra Yadav

I second mobile + computer = mobile. Whatever the netbook can do, mobile will be able to do very soon... and it can make calls... guaranteed win for mobile. The PC will survive to support industry applications like Photoshop, 3D Studio, in-line editing etc but will fade away from personal use.


Excellent post, Thanks Tomi.

IMHO, netbook/PC don't stand a chance in the long term (10 years, maybe even less). Basically the smartphone has that key reachability and is "pocketable". What it is missing from the netbook is the screen size, the keyboard size and other UI control input (e.g. mouse), the computing power and finally some of the softwares that people got used to in the Microsoft/Mac OS X world.

The two first ones have a solution already today e.g. think if Apple or Nokia would propose a smart connector into their smartphones so that via this connector, they and 3rd parties could sell cheap HW to extend the capabilities of the smartphones:
- thin laptop with no processor/ram/mother board only LCD screen, keyboard, extra battery to recharge the phone and power the screen, maybe an additional hard disk to backup the phone.
- a stand with easy connection at home/work to LCD screen, power, wireless mouse/keyboard

In few years the computing power of smartphones should start to approach what you need to power a netbook/PC with similar multitasking, screen resolution, ...

The software side is the key here, to have a smartphone OS with enough power and flexibility to allow such scenarios, while still catching up on what is today possible on a PC (e.g. Flash, full browser support, photo/video editing, ...).

Apple is maybe the best prepared for that, however I guess they won't push cheap HW and cannibilize their macbook line.
Nokia could do it with both or either Symbian OS and Maemo, but they still have to get the developpers on their side.
Google still has to improve Android and reach scale. At least they're quite ahead in term of SW applications (Google apps, Gears, ...).
You have to tell me if/how RIM can pull that up.
I don't see Microsoft getting this right for a come back ;-)



I was in the position just a few weeks ago of deciding whether to go smartphone or netbook. Although netbooks has much of the things that I want and familiar with on my PC, your 30 second vs 30 minute usage analogy made me realize what device is right for me. From reading this article, I ended up with a smartphone and I know I made the right decision. I've also read other articles comparing smartphones to netbooks/laptops as an either/or option. One author even tried to go one week with just using his smartphone but quickly gave up after only 3 days. As you mentioned, most people don't have the option and can only have a cellphone, but for people who can afford both, I can not see the point of trying to pick one over the other because they have very different uses. Some even tried to do away with one device when they already have access to both.

Yes, I picked the smartphone over the netbook, but that's because I already have a desktop and a laptop (albeit an older laptop). Having a full keyboard and big screen of a netbook is nice while on the go, but when I really analyzed my data usage on the go, I fall heavily on the "30 second use" side. As a matter of fact, I don't recall ever having the desire to go somewhere just to sit under a tree in a park, or sit at Starbucks for hours on end just to mobile compute. I do all that on my desktop PC or laptop. All my other mobile data needs are served very well by the smartphone. I just can't see myself using a netbook while chatting on instant messenger while walking in public. Something I routinely do with my smartphone.


Yet more news from Nokia World 09. Now we have confirmation and information about the brand-new Nokia N97 "Mini", slimmed down version of the current Nokia flagship smartphone. On the whole, it looks like a very solid compromise between power, cost, and size. Visit for more details.


Hi Tomi, very interesting read.
However, I think that your argument about the lack of "reachability" of laptops will only hold for so long: I'm sure in the mid-term PC manufacturers and OS vendors will manage to make PC laptops "reachable" in the sense that they'll be able to receive communications while in a very low-power state.
Actually I could even see Apple do that first since they control both the HW and SW (easier for them than Microsoft who has to coordinate their effort with many PC makers and HW manufacturers).
Nevertheless, even when PC are as "reachable" as smartphones, they will never be as "pocketable".
I believe this distinction will always remain and distinguish the PC from the smartphone, because if the PC becomes truly "pocketable" it loses its comfort and productivity edge over the smartphone

Tomi T Ahonen

Hi Varun, Sachendra, cooli, Francis, peter and Romain

Thank you all for the comments. I will respond to each individually

Varun - good point about the convergence. The 'size' convergence is now obvious, as the 'shrinking' phone trend was reversed by the iPhone, and the netbooks give an ever smaller direction for the laptop. First, that 'pocket' computer metaphor is nothing new. I loved my HP LX 100, 'palmtop' PC which ran DOS and used real Lotus 1-2-3 back two decades ago. Was in every way a real computer in a very tiny box, fit into my pocket, and was a staple to every business meeting I ever went to - until I replaced it with my first Nokia Communicator. And today's E90 Communicator is definitely a 'tiny' netbook-equivalent by Nokia. But the point is, that the laptop metaphor (won't ring in the pocket) is the smaller market opportunity, vs the ringing-in-the-pocket smartphone - so if it rings, its a smartphone. If it doesn't it won't be nearly as big. If the 'total convergence' happens as you describe, then smartphones have won..

Sachendra - thanks, we agree :-)

cooli - good points and we agree. Did you notice, that the 'performance gap' is now shrinking from both sides, while smartphone CPUs, memory, screen size etc are improving, the netbooks are often severe compromises vs 'full size' notebooks, and have slower CPU's, lesser memory etc, and are very comfortable running Windows XP.. so the laptop metaphor (via netbook) is actually moving 'backwards' in performance haha...

Francis - very good points and good examples. Yes, I am very much in the same way. While I prefer longer typing - like these comments now at the blog - via my laptop, I often find myself with some spare time but not my laptop with me. I am quite happy to use my smartphones (Blackberry and #E90 Communicator, both with QWERTY keyboards) to do my Twitter updates, the occasional shorter blog update and miscellaneous comments such as at Forum Oxford. But yes, you and I are in the privileged group, who can afford to own both types of devices. Great comments and examples, thanks.

peter - thanks for the update

Romain - Actually I do disagree with you. The 'easy' part of the PC industry is to do the connectivity via WiFi or WiMax today or the near future. But that brings hideous problems of the economics. The laptop maker will not want to pay for your WiFi/WiMax - service subscription. And with the very small exception of a few places on the planet (Singapore as one rare exception) you will not have free wireless connectivity anywhere.

Then the issue becomes parallel wireless networking technologies - 2G, 3G, WiFi, WiMax and soon also 4G (which is not WiMax by the way). Each has certain benefits and drawbacks in terms of laptop use, and to make matters worse, 2G, 3G and probably real 4G will have standards wars - in 3G we have 3 separate 3G technologies now being deployed in China for example.

So while it may be 'technically' quite possible to do the ringing test, I say it is commercially very complex to do even nationally (by a laptop vendor) and internationally a total quagmire. But cellular mobile phones - and smartphones - do this routinely..

Thank you all for your comments

Tomi Ahonen :-)


Smartphones will win for sure!!



I think that you're talking a lot about developing countries without having a real glimpse of what is going on, im writing from mexico which for whatever reason is a complex market due to the extreme wealth distribution. Obviously people with access to the best smart-phones will not have a netbook (most of them at least), they'll do fine with a laptop/smartphone combo (using your 30 mins / 30 secs metaphor as a rule) but the thing is people with less money. Thing is, that in my country, phone data rates are crazy expensive, and most of them require you to buy a 40 USD plan or prepaid card, while people here just go and buy 2-3 USD credit purchases to send less than 20 sms during a week or so.

So if that people find out they have the need to serve some computing task, be sure it will be something for their children school or something, and therefore they will go out and buy a 200 USD netbook. they wont EVER buy a nice 1000 USD iphone 4, hell i would say most of the people wont go and get a 300 USD nokia 5530.

It is sad, but people have really more significant things to worry about in a developing country than sending sms, twitting all day long, and watching some dorky stuff in youtube.

Other thing that is important to say is "shareablity" that is, a phone is a rather personal stuff, so in a household, you coud get 4 dumbphones and 1 netbook for the whole family! trust me sharing is the rule of thumb for poor people (you should see something like 4 or 5 families sharing what in the USA would be a really small house)

Maybe in a relatively distant future thing could change, but still even as a status symbol i would say poor people will feel more accomplished if they buy something that resembles an executive laptop rather than a regular phone.

Anyway lets see how things turn out, nice article, and keep writing.

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