Thursday, November 3, 2011

On low-cost computing (a discussion with Jason Suss)

Loren Feldman has this insane belief that social media is supposed to be social, so when he goes on Google+, he starts threads that get people to interact. Sometimes those threads can take interesting turns.

Take this thread, which was initially devoted to the readability of I entered the discussion:

+Nuno Maia, I took up your challenge while on my netbook. I couldn't answer anything in 10 seconds, because it took much longer for to load on my netbook. When it did, it was obvious that the most recent/important item was the BMW ad that filled my screen for a while. I did not have a seizure because I was too busy scrolling down to the bottom of the page, through a disorganized mass of differently colored articles. Plain text would have been more readable.

This prompted a response from Jason Suss, and some interaction between Jason and myself. Read the thread for all of it, but I'm going to reproduce Suss' second comment.

+John E. Bredehoft Latest and greatest isn't the question here. Netbooks are unnaturally gimped to meet the inordinately low price points in their market. Most netbooks likely have less computing power available and are on less optimized platforms then the 4s (and at least on my SGII has a pretty nice mobile site of similar design that pops rather quickly).

My point is that the direction of design / development shouldn't be dictated by a user base who have chosen to provide themselves with a limited computing experience. Netbook hardware (processing power, graphics, etc) is intentionally generations behind in order to hold the line on costs. In my experience, most netbooks are also often limited to running XP and come chock full of bloatware that assumedly also help finance their price points. Combining weak innards with old operating systems and a bunch of garbage bloat apps constantly running in the background is a recipe for disaster.

Perhaps a better solution is to pre-equip netbooks with browser agent strings that identify them as cellphones in order to deliver a more appropriate computing experience.

Dont get me wrong, I just believe that an unfortunate side effect of the netbook fad has been to similarly cheapen the web experience that devs like me are asked to build.

Of course, the netbook is not the only low-priced computer out there. For entirely different reasons, a cheap computer is being produced in India - one that makes my netbook look like a powerhouse. From NPR:

India has unveiled what its government says is the world's cheapest tablet computer, along with a promise to make the device available to the country's college students, and possibly, to those in high school as well. The government says it's a major step toward bridging the country's gigantic digital divide.

The tablet is called "Aakash," the Hindi word for "sky," and boosters say it could give Internet access to billions of people....

The Aakash fits neatly into the span of his two hands as he demonstrates its features: a resistive touch screen, Wi-Fi and video conferencing capabilities. It has an SD card slot, two USB ports, a 600 MHz processor, 256MB RAM and runs Android 2.2.

Tuli says it has a battery life of about three hours, crucial in areas that don't have reliable electricity.

Now presumably an Indian high school student doesn't place a high priority on viewing the information at The Verge. But this does illustrate that in any market, there are a wide variety of computer users. Some have very powerful and capable machines, while others (for various reasons) have machines that have less power.

My netbook works fine for most of the things that I use it for, and its low weight and long battery life make it ideal for some situations. If (in the words of my comment on Feldman's thread) I treated computer purchases as short-term expenses rather than capital expenses, I'd go buy a newer computer in the same form factor that has 2 GB of RAM rather than the 1 GB that last year's netbook has. (Tablets or iPhones/iPods don't meet my needs; I like keyboards.)

P.S. I've previously addressed other obsolescence situations, such as my use of Internet Explorer 6 as late as March 2009. In that case, this was a company-imposed restriction. At the end of the day, I left the company (or, more accurately, the company left me).

P.P.S. Suss is the code monkey at Primal Stare Studios in New Jersey, a provider of "art & technology solutions" to companies such as Chili's, Kohler, and AARP. And no, I guess I shouldn't be using a netbook to buy Kohler products from Nor should I be on a slow Internet connection - time to move to Finland.
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