Quite a few people originally became interested in handhelds and smartphones because they wanted a mobile computer smaller and cheaper than a typical laptop.
That’s why many in this group were excited when Asus first announced the Eee PC. A notebook that would weigh only 2 pounds but cost just $200 was exactly what they were looking for.
But there’s a problem: the price and size of the Eee PC has been creeping up steadily. The version most often purchased now in the U.S. has a 7-inch screen and sells for $400. It’s been a hit, even though this was more expensive that what Asus originally hoped, but Asus won’t leave well enough alone.
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The company in the process of bringing out a 9-inch version that is about 10% bigger and $100 more expensive, and it’s not stopping there. An Asus executive said recently that that his company is prepping a version with a 10-inch display, and is looking into increasing the size of the keyboard.
Asus isn’t alone in this. HP’s new Mini-Note has a 9-inch display, and it starts at $500 and goes up from there.
It seems obvious to me that companies are losing sight of the goal. The Eee PC is popular because it’s a small inexpensive laptop, but the upcoming versions of it are neither. And the models competing against it are equally big and expensive.
The Lure of Windows
It’s easy to see what’s driving at least some of this feature creep: Microsoft Windows.
When Asus launched the Eee PC, because of its somewhat limited specifications — a relatively slow processor, not a lot of RAM or storage — the subnotebook came with a version of Linux that’s well suited to it. Some enterprising individuals put Windows on their units, and found it was up to the job, but to do it well the devices needed to be hacked to offer more RAM and storage, and some people even put a faster processor in.
Asus saw an opportunity and has begun offering the Eee PC with Windows XP already installed. But this version still handles this job only tolerably well, so Asus is planning to bump up the specifications of future versions to handle Windows better.
This will, of course, make the device more expensive, and likely contribute to making it larger and heavier, as faster processors use more power and need bigger batteries.
Improve the Software Not the Hardware
What Asus is doing is close to exactly the opposite of what it should be doing. Instead of bumping up the device’s hardware, Asus should be working on the software.
People are installing Windows because the version of Linux that ships with the Eee PC lacks basic features they need. Asus should be working to add these, not falling into the trap that the best solution is always Windows.
I’m not saying that Asus’ version of Linux should try to do everything that Windows does, but there are some very commonly used features that it lacks. For example, if you want to use a Bluetooth mouse with an Eee PC, the process adding the necessary software driver to the Linux OS is so messy that installing Windows is actually easier.
What people need is a light-duty mobile device with a good web browser and a decent word processor. Asus can provide that, and it doesn’t need Windows to do it.
Asus should add support for some commonly used peripherals to its sub-notebook, and keep improving the web browser and Office suite, rather than modifying hardware in ways that drive up the cost.
So far, Brighthand has covered the Eee PC and similar devices because I can easily see someone debating between buying a high-end handheld and an entry-level subnotebook. Both are portable computers that cost about the same and perform many of the same tasks.
But if subnotebooks continue on their current path — constantly getting larger and more expensive — before too much longer they’ll be just like every other low-end notebook. That’s the point where I lose interest, and I’m sure plenty of other people who are considering the Eee PC will, too.