THERE WAS A TIME when, if your personal computer - or at least its monitor and keyboard - sat on your desk, it was called a desktop, and if it could sit on your lap without giving you a hernia and painful burns, it was called a laptop. Simple.
Then Apple introduced the Powerbook, and later the cheap and cheerful Ibook, and marketing departments throughout the world decided they liked the book analogy. Soon after the Notebook was born. Why the term laptop fell out of favour is not clear, although the earliest ones were rather heavy and were also called portable computers for that reason.
At that time, the fashion was for bigger and more powerful portable computers and media types with spinal injuries lugging laptops the size of suitcases were a common site on the streets of Hoxton and other international hives of creativity.
People with normal haircuts, however, were looking for smaller, lighter, cheaper alternatives to the enormously expensive desktop-replicating laptops of the time. What was the point of lugging around a fully-specced Mac or PC when all you really wanted to do with it was read the occasional email, check your stocks and shares on the Internet, and fend off the loneliness of another night in an anonymous hotel with a bit of one-handed surfing?
When the ill-fated and ultimately unsuccessful One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) foundation announced that it would be building a mobile computing device for $100 capable of connecting to the Interwibble and carrying out light office productivity tasks, many commentators guffawed with laughter. With its Fischer Price-styling, kid-friendly interface and prehistoric technical specs, the OLPC was seen as a bit of a joke. Fortunately for the future of computing, some people weren't laughing.
Intel saw a gap in the market and developed the Atom processor and soon after Taiwanese box builder Asus gratefully adopted Intel's pint-sized processor.
The word netbook was apparently first coined by PDA pioneer Psion and until recently the company has tried to maintain it had a copyright on the term. But soon after 2007 when Asus unveiled the Eee PC to an unsuspecting world, the term became generic.
There is no definitive specification for a netbook - or mini notebook or sub notebook as they are also known, just to add to the confusion - but general wisdom has it that, in order to qualify for the moniker, a computing device should have a screen of less than ten inches, weigh less than three pounds and cost less than $400.
Most come without an optical drive in order to keep down the size, weight and battery drain, along with scaled down keyboards. The vast majority have low-capacity hard drives and are powered by cut-down, older or open sauce operating systems. In fact, Microsoft was forced to repeatedly extend the shelf life of Windows XP because the bloated mess that was Vista simply wouldn't run on the new generation of pocketable PCs.
By this time every OEM in the galaxy had jumped on the netbook bandwagon and very soon diminutive offerings from Dell, Hewlett Packard and MSI were outselling their grown-up siblings, or at least making very large dents in their market shares.
Microsoft and Intel have been accused of trying to keep the netbook market in its place way below the traditional and more lucrative notebook market but, as is always the case, consumer demand will out and the lines between netbooks and notebooks becomes more and more blurred and confusing every day.
Adding to that confusion comes the announcement today that Taiwanese fabless box builder VIA wants us all to make room in our already overcrowded brains for a new category of small laptop. Ladies and Gentlemen… I give you [drum roll]… the Netnote. Oh God no. We just can't take much more of this!
VIA tells us that this new breed of laptops, which will be built using their Surfboard mobos, will "Blend the portability and affordability of netbooks with the functionality and HD video capabilities of notebooks to define a new sweet spot in the mobile computing market."
The company is planning to offer turnkey systems to OEMs which will find their way into 10 to 12-inch laptops, but the big selling point appears to be full HD 1080p video. As the maximum display resolution is 1366 x 768, we can only assume that HD playback will come in the form of an HDMI output hooked up to a bigger monitor or TV set.
The real question is, of course, do we really need yet another sub-category of laptop computer when the distinction between each class is ill-defined at best and non existant at worst?
The answer is no, by the way. µ