– A cheesy picture of my cat, with Asus Eeepc, for scale.
“If,” said the worried Sony executive, “the Asus starts to do well, we are all in trouble. That’s just a race to the bottom.”
Ah. Don’t you just love the sound of.. er… paradigms being shifted in the morning? [Note to subs: find something more poetic for this line. Subs. Subs? Where d'yall... ah].
The executive in question was talking to CNet recently about the lovely Asus Eee PC – a tiny laptop with a 7-inch display, Wifi and no drives (hard or optical). The price tag matches its dimensions; the machines start at just £200.
You can understand his concern; the weee machine is very bad news indeed if you’re trying to sell slightly bigger laptops for roughly ten times that pricetag.
I got an Asus last month, a generous birthday prezzie from Mrs Tosh. And, four weeks or so in, I love my little laptop. I wouldn’t swap for a Sony. Even the gorgeous MacBook Air, by dint of its exorbitant pricetag, is no match.
It’s small enough to fit in the little satchel I carry around, and light enough for me not to care it’s there. With no moving parts, it’s robust enough to cope with being constantly on the move. And all that makes it very handy – whenever I need a computer to work on, it’s there. It’s dinky enough even to be usable when I’m jammed in the back of a Virgin 747 which, at the moment, looks like a Good Thing indeed.
So, all told, a lovely wee machine – a great choice if you’re in the market for something small and useful. I heartily recommend it.
And, using it, you do wonder: is it significant in an industry-wise sense? Is the little Asus the first of a new class of computer?
As Glyn Moody pointed out in the Guardian the other week, the machine is running the Linux operating system, and its huge success makes it a significant breakthrough for that OS. Finally, goes the theory, a machine that proves you don’t need a Phd to use Linux.
I’m delighted it’s a Linux machine, and I might explore the system’s innards sometime, but the interesting thing for me so far has simply been that the operating system isn’t an issue, either way. It could be running an OS by Tonka, for all I care.
Certainly, it lacks the pleasing eye-candy of OSX, or the transition-y joy of Keynote – my presentation app of choice these days. It’s not part of my carefully synched, interconnected cluster of Macs and iPhone, where documents, bookmarks and contacts flit from desktop to palmtop to (big) laptop with no supervision from me. The interface isn’t what you’d ever term beautiful.
But none of that really matters. What’s most important is that it’s got Firefox for web browsing, and that Firefox has Flash, and all the other bits and pieces you expect from a proper web browser; thus, the web works properly. And, thus, Google applications, which gives me email and documents, runs just fine.
Elsewhere, pre-loaded, there’s Skype to use with the little camera and microphone built in to the lid, and OpenOffice for when I can’t get an internet connection to Google apps. A video out jack lets me do presentations – it happily steps up its resolution to fill a projector’s display. And I can upload to Flickr, picture transfer made particuarly easy by the little flash card reader built in the side.
That, really, is all I need. The differences between this and my next laptop of lust – the Air – aren’t really worth £1000 to me.
So the OS wars angle passes me by. It’s not as if the Asus, lovely as it is, will have me forgoe my desktop Mac, where iTunes and iPhoto (and soon, I suspect, Aperture) are the most-used apps.
But, away from all the advantages Apple’s vertical integration gives it, things are different, I suspect. Specifically, if I was a Windows laptop manufacturer, I’d be more worried. Just as Windows is getting absurdly greedy for computing resources, here’s a little laptop that cuts things right down.
The executive I quoted at the top makes this shift in the laptop business sound like a bad thing. He makes it sound as if the Eee PC isn’t, yet, doing well – that this might be a genie that can somehow be kept in the bottle. I can understand his denial; working in an industry also challenged by upstart, low-cost competition, I recognise the emotions he’s facing.
Truth is, I suspect he and I are swimming in the same choppy water. The waves have been kicked up by the opening up of once-expensive, complex tools to whole new markets – a line of innovation that’s already brought desktop (print) publishing, easy digital publishing (blogging) and cheap digital audio and video to mass markets.
It’s about time the same forces started shaping the devices which faciliate all that creativity – especially laptops, where price points haven’t changed much in years.
For those of us with laptop habits, all this is great news. The bad news for our Sony executive is the race to the bottom may already have started – it’s already time to adapt, too late to forewarn.