Guy Vs. Guy: The Net Value of Netbooks

Last Updated Feb 9, 2009 11:18 AM EST

Welcome to Guy Vs. Guy! In this recurring feature, Rick and Dave square off on the business and technology issues of the day. Today's topic: Netbooks. Do they deserve a place in business users' briefcases, or are they too underpowered to be of any real value? More importantly, are they single-handedly tanking the computer biz?

Rick: The netbook revolution is upon us, my friend, like it or not. Actually, I know you don't like it, because you recently made some seriously disparaging remarks about my Acer Aspire One. Of course, you usually insist on buying oversize, overpowered, overpriced computers, so I can understand your resistance. But given that I have to defend the little buggers, you'd best come up with some arguments real people can relate to.

Dave: Like shootin' fish in a barrel, my friend. I hate everything about netbooks. Their size. Their memory. Their processor speed. Their screen size. Their keyboards. Their price. Yes, even their price. I hardly know where to start. But if the netbook revolution truly is upon us, at least I can take solace in the knowledge that the disco revolution was upon us once as well, and no one wears goldfish in their shoes anymore. I just need to bide my time.


Rick: Unlike you, I've actually used a few netbooks. And as much as I expected to hate their smallish screens and keyboards, I was able to get my work done in relative comfort. They're particularly ideal for air travel, as they're easy to tote and actually compact enough to fit on an airplane tray-table. Trust me, schlepping a bulky 7-pound notebook gets old fast. There's definitely something to be said for a 2-3-pound system that's barely larger than a hardcover book.

Dave: I'm going to skip all the obvious stuff like the teeny screens and horrific usability -- we can come back to that -- and instead zero in on the fact that they're killing the entire computer industry. Consider this: Margins on computer hardware have always been razor-thin. Computer manufacturers can barely make enough money to stay in business under the best of conditions. And then along come netbooks. Sure, in the short term you can buy a cheap laptop. But netbooks are rotting the industry from the inside, and two years from now the financial infrastructure to innovate and release powerful and compelling new hardware could well be gone. That scares me.

Rick: Wait a second -- an insanely popular new product category that's selling like hotcakes is going to bring down the entire computer biz? You're not buying cheap meds from Canada again, are you? Somehow I don't think Asus, Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Sony, and just about every other computer maker on the planet would stock netbooks if they weren't profitable. If anything, netbooks may help save the industry, as people tend to buy them as secondary machines. "Let's see, tomorrow's business trip is just an overnight, so I'll bring the 3-pound netbook instead of the 7-pound laptop."

Dave: That's a nice gut reaction, but as usual, you tend to emote while I do actual research. It turns out, as you can find from any number of online sources (such as this story at Mobile Magazine), there's no money in netbooks. Many vendors are steering clear of the segment. Those that do enter it are largely doing so out of fear and a desire to satisfy consumer demand, even if it has no net effect (or actually has a detrimental effect) on their bottom line. So it's easy to imagine a day when so many people use these crappy netbooks that it has hollowed out the whole industry, and significant innovation is dead for lack of investment capital.

Rick: Ah, yes, nothing like a six-month-old article from some obscure blog to prove your point. Trust me: There's money in netbooks, whether it's from volume purchasing or brand promotion or even accessory sales. And even you would admit the marketplace is quite different now than it was in July, 2008. Everyone's looking for a bargain, even if it means sacrificing some usability. Which brings us back to the original question, which you've ducked as usual: Are netbooks smart buys for business users? I'm inclined to say no, mostly because of their generally poor battery life. Fix that (as Asus has apparently done with its new 9.5-hour 1000HE) and I'll quickly come around.

Dave: Did you just make my point? I thought you were arguing in favor of these infernal contraptions. Yes, we agree...that they're not a good buy for business users. Why? They don't save you any money at all. You contradicted yourself, Einstein. You contend that people buy netbooks looking for a bargain, but then you also theorize that people are buying them as secondary machines. Well, which is it, Flip-Flop Man? I'll tell you: No rational business user will buy a netbook as a sole device, no matter the price. So not only does buying one make your checkbook weep, but you now have to contend with synchronizing data between multiple portables. Good god, as if I didn't already have enough problems, now I have to remember if the Jackson Report is on the laptop or the netbook? What if I get to Detroit and my sales brochure is on the wrong device? Isn't being in Detroit punishment enough, and now my decision to buy a netbook has cost me my job as well?

Rick: Hold it right there, mister. Only those of us who live in Detroit get to bash Detroit. Anyway, you can't possibly be using data synchronization as an argument against netbooks, can you? Ever heard of Dropbox? Or Windows Live Sync? Or any of a dozen other services that keep all your files synced, automatically, in the background? By your logic, no one should buy a laptop because of the "hassles" of synchronizing with their desktop! Guess you're still relying on a sneakernet, using floppies to ferry data back and forth, but in the real world we're a bit more advanced. Bottom line: Netbooks aren't perfect, but for users who don't need massive computing power while traveling (and, let's be honest, that's most users), they're a solid option.

Dave: Sure, I suppose I could shore up a netbook with tools and services to make it adequate. But after I sync all my data and get a good night's sleep, I awake to learn that no, it wasn't a nightmare -- I really do continue to have a sluggish, clumsy, user-hostile netbook. A netbook that's good for only half the things I want to use a PC for. And a netbook that, sale by sale, is eviscerating the computer industry and making it ever less likely that I'll someday be able to download my consciousness into my PC. I'll take three, please.

Rick: It's sad when the best you can do is restate your already weak position. Your debate skills have really gone downhill since your release from the asylum. Anyway, I'll leave to our readers (both of them) to rip apart your tenuous argument and explain why real users in the real world have made netbooks the top-selling portable PCs on Amazon. As I've told you countless times before, Dave: Just because something's popular doesn't mean it's bad.

Dave: And as your entire music collection clearly shows, just because something's popular doesn't mean it's good.

Okay, sports fans: Who won the argument? Hit the Comments and declare a winner.

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    Rick Broida, a technology writer for more than 20 years, is the author of more than a dozen books. In addition to writing CNET's The Cheapskate blog, he contributes to CNET's iPhone Atlas.