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April 10, 2009

It’s The Netbook, Stupid

Personal computers are an obstacle to broadband use. They're complicated, expensive, heavy, take forever to boot up – and unnecessary. Ironically I'm writing this post on a computer because I'm on a plane, one of the few places (besides rural America and developing nations) where broadband isn't available.

Mary was thinking about how to achieve Vermont's new goal of making broadband available to everyone including those who can't afford or don't know how to use computers. Suddenly we realized that computers are a problem, not a solution. If you know you're going to have good broadband, you don't need a computer to browse the web or communicate; you don't even need a computer to create documents, use spreadsheets, store and analyze data. We need to compute but we don't need a computer. The personal computer is an expensive, inconvenient, and inefficient way to all these things. Of course people like me are also hooked on computers.

So we bought a netbook. It took a while to find one with Linux instead of Windows; but that's what we wanted to experiment with. Vista has conclusively proven how much of a barrier an operating system can be. Linux is not only free but also non-obtrusive. Finally bought an ASUS Eee PC 900 with a builtin video camera, mic, and speakers (Skype ready), an 8.9" screen, and a 16 Gig harddrive (which I would have as soon done without). Didn't buy any applications, of course. $247.56 at Amazon with free shipping. (I know, I know, this is really a computer; even has Intel inside. But we're only using the browser and the explorer so it doesn't count as a computer).

Carefully I kept my nerdish self away when it came. Mary was up and on the Net using our home wifi in about ten minutes after opening the box. Mary's not a novice but she's also not a nerd. Looks good so far. I came back in when I heard the music and found her happily listening to Internet radio from India on the not-too-shabby speakers.

Here's our plan. Mary transitions off her HP to the netbook. She uses only online apps through the browser; she stores her data in the cloud (actually better for collaboration). Pictures live at Picasa or the like; videos in YouTube; white papers and spreadsheets in Google Docs (lots of Google here). Side benefits are her environment is available at whatever Internet café she uses to go online and backup is no longer an issue. In fact she was delighted to find after a small snafu with the word processor in Google apps, which made all the words disappear ,that every edit she'd made had resulted in an automatically archived version of the document.

If this works than maybe we don't worry about computers and software for the newly connected. A netbook'll actually be better – cheaper, easier install, easier to use, no software to buy, and probably replaces the landline phone with Skype video calls.

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