A netbook (sometimes also referred to as a net.sourcebook) is an electronically aggregated, maintained and disseminated collection of submissions on a specific theme, an electronic sourcebook most often for use in role-playing games, e.g., collections of user-created spell formulae, prayers, potions, magic items, weapons and equipment, NPCs, bestiaries, etc. Netbooks used to be generated largely by RPG listserv subscribers and were distributed by email and ftp (often in LaTeX and raw postscript formats, to print as "real" books, hence the derivation of the name, also a back-formation from "spellbook" and "prayerbook"), but many now are maintained as or as part of web sites, or are available for http download in various text and document formats for current word processors.

Examples

Online Directories of Netbooks

  • Blue Troll's Netbooks - www.fortunecity.com/victorian/byzantium/55/index.htm
  • Fantasy Netbook Community Council - www.enworld.org/fancc/netbook/
  • NetRPG - www.netrpg.com/netbooks.html
  • Olik's Archive - www.acc.umu.se/~stradh/dnd/mirror/Ezra/books/olear/ADnD/NetBooks.html
  • Plastic Warriors (Shadowrun) - plastic.dumpshock.com/shadowrun/
  • Ravenloft Netbooks - www.kargatane.com/sotk/netbook/netbook.html
  • Rondak's Portal - www.rondaksportal.com/public/resources/netbooks/index.php3
  • Strolen's Citadel - strolen.com/netbooks/index.php
  • The Wraith Project: Netbooks - www.pondside.com/wraith/wraith/WPnetbooks.html

A netbook is a laptop computer designed primarily to be extremely cheap and extremely portable. As a result, these computers are significantly underpowered compared to the standards of other computers being produced at the same time; however, they are more than sufficient for simple Internet browsing, digital document production, and lightweight computing tasks.

Netbooks are a slap in the face to companies that have a business model based around stronger and stronger computers, producers of dedicated word processor devices, and people who can't understand the concept of enough computing power. They sit as a taunting opposite to giant gaming rigs, 40" widescreen monitors, and ENIAC. They are the opposite of conspicuous consumption; instead, they stand as conspicuous minimalism, a visible statement to others that you are using all the computer you need and no more.

Netbooks are very nearly disposable computers. I use mine at malls, crowded concerts at a coffee shop by one of my favorite bands, and outside at the city park. I would not consider taking my Tablet PC any of these places out of fear of damage; the computer was definitely not free, but it was sufficiently inexpensive that I am willing to take more risks with it.

Netbooks were heavily inspired by Web 2.0 and the advent of online word processors and other assorted office applications, Skype, and the wide availability of wi-fi access points. They become a highly convenient personal terminal, and the applications available online that use the strength of remote servers make up for the relative lack of strength of the computer.

That said, my Acer Aspire One was about half as expensive and twice as strong as the Gateway notebook I started college with five years ago, and it's running the same OS and similar applications. Despite how it compares to the specs of a more mainstream modern computer, it feels quite peppy.

In an example of everything2 costing people significant amounts of money, I bought my netbook mostly so I could try to keep up with THE IRON NODER CHALLENGE a bit while waiting three hours for a concert to start. (I wanted a good seat.) I did not actually compose any nodes during that time. I did, however, have a large number of people call it cute.

Allow me to present an opposing viewpoint on the latest trend in computer sales. I do not see the netbook as an example of conspicuous minimalism. Far from it - in my opinion, these cute little toys are the textbook example of conspicuous consumption.

Before I get started, would everyone out there whose ONLY computer is a netbook please raise their hands?

No, I didn't think so.

The fact is, very few people are buying netbooks thinking "this is all the computer I need". No matter what market you're in, you're likely to want more than a netbook can give you. These are intentionally crippled computers. They have no optical drive, few ports, screens that run from 7.9" to 10", Atom processors that shudder at the very sight of Windows Vista and current games, and chopped keyboards that make typing more than a page or two an exercise in masochism.

Almost everyone who is in the market for a primary computer will find that one or more of these things makes a netbook a bad choice. Bobby XBox isn't really going to buy a computer that can't play any game released after 2002, is he? Tina Tightbudget needs a DVD drive for the family to watch movies on, and a bigger screen would be nice. Grandma Josephine, who otherwise has truly minimal computing needs, can't see a damn thing on that eight-inch screen and might as well buy a $400 doorstop. And Yours Truly, who mostly wants a computer for writing on, would *like* to have an optical drive but really needs a full-size keyboard because carpal tunnel syndrome makes him cranky.

Computer manufacturers are well aware of netbooks' handicaps. They designed them that way. They're not stupid. They know that if any aspect of the netbook formula was altered to make it "all the computer you need", they would cannibalize the thin-and-light, budget and mainstream market categories. Toshiba and Dell are not about to do that to themselves.

Instead, they're marketing them as supplemental toys. They're selling them to style-conscious consumers who already have a gaming rig and a MacBook Pro for serious computing - people who have no real need for another computer, but have money that they're not quite sure how to spend.

What the manufacturers want the netbook to be is a brand new market segment: the disposable computer, a go-anywhere toy you can bring to the beach instead of risking your good laptop. A computer that, when it wears out in a year or two, won't even be worth repairing because a better one will only cost two hundred bucks. Another gadget to sling in your backpack along with the 3G iPhone, the DS and the video camera. Another Windows XP license to keep Microsoft's pockets lined. Another status symbol to separate the cool kids from the losers.

(And if you're keeping track of ecological costs, that's another device sucking power and another two tons of raw materials wasted to produce this year's hottest accessory.)

It's working frighteningly well, too. Nothing motivates humans like keeping up with the Joneses. It's only been a year since the introduction of the eeePC, and almost every major PC maker now sells a nearly identical netbook. Before the eeePC showed up, just about everybody thought a five-pound laptop was pretty damn portable. A year later, it's hopelessly unhip to bring that same 14" laptop to the coffee shop. Of course, you still need the fourteen-incher at home to do any kind of real work, but when you're meeting a MOTAS you need something with a little more sex appeal, right?

Not that the concept of the netbook is entirely without potential. These computers may indeed be enough for some users, particularly those whose primary needs are educational. The OLPC XO computer is a sort of netbook, albeit one with completely different design goals, such as the option to use human muscle as a power source for off-grid usage. The idea of an energy-efficient laptop portable enough to go anywhere and cheap enough to bridge the digital divide is a powerfully attractive one, and if netbooks had been designed as real computers to answer that need, they could have been the greatest technological revolution since refrigeration.

Unfortunately, every computer manufacturer in the world has decided that instead of that universal laptop, they would make shiny toys for people with too much disposable income.

OK, so here we have assembled two end-user's perspectives on netbooks, and what could be described as an anti-consumerist perspective, all of which are totally valid. Allow me to offer a third way. Allow me, your humble narrator, to present the business case for large-scale business adoption of netbooks. First, I'll lay out the issues, then offer an executive summary, and conclude with a live business example.

Durability

Fragile moving parts (i.e. hard drives and DVD drives) and screen hardware (current-generation LCD) are utterly incompatible with the rigors of hand transport. Look at the box your portable computer came in. Examine the several inches of airspace and the thick, almost-excessive-looking white polystyrene packing system. Now examine the bag you propose to transport your laptop in every day. Case closed (pun intended). There are two classes of executive laptop: dropped, and not-yet-dropped.

Workload

For the vast majority of on-the-road professionals, there are three very simple tasks that require a portable computer: email (and access to other corporate web-based resources); giving presentations; and modifying presentations at the last minute. Supplying "desktop replacement" class hardware for these simple tasks is akin to supplying light artillery for the purposes of engineering a drop in the localized mosquito population.

Insurance

An often overlooked component of the TCO of supplying your traveling workforce with "laptops". It should be obvious that the insurance bill for, say, 20 devices worth a couple hundred each is significantly cheaper than insuring 20 devices worth a couple thousand each. I should be clear, here, that I'm not simply talking about insuring against loss. This category of costs covers breakage, reconstruction of data, and the repair bill.

Features

Divide your workforce into content creators and content consumers. This is an illuminating exercise that has implications far beyond a discussion about netbooks. Do the content consumers really need a full license of your corporate "office" suite? Stated in the language of the usual suspects in this game: give your content creators a copy of Microsoft Word by all means, but ask yourself if your content consumers might be perfectly served simply by using the free Wordpad that comes with Windows? In the terms of the netbooks that we're discussing, what "features" do your on-the-road crew actually need? What software will they actually run? The answer to these questions is very, very often: a small subset of your desktop application suite.

Adding Functionality

As several technophile websites have already loudly proclaimed to anyone who will listen: why do additional "built in" business laptop features cost hundreds of dollars more, when the same features "plugged in" via USB cost at most $15 more?

Executive Summary

So, taking into account those issues, I believe you can make a strong argument that what business needs in most cases for portable computing hardware is as follows:

As cheap a computer as possible, mapping (but not exceeding) onto the features required, capable of easily exceeding the likely workload, with durability maximized by removal (or reduction in size) of the most commonly broken components, and good "plug in" extendability for storage/connectivity.

Executive Summary Summary: Netbooks for everyone!

Live Business Example

In the Open Source software business I am currently involved with, we use netbooks exclusively for all our portable computing needs (which, unsurprisingly, map closely to those outlined above). In our business this also has the secondary benefits of ensuring that all "serious" work is done on secure, regularly backed up desktops, and that our traveling comrades never ever have "luggage issues" on today's crowded flights.

Contrary to the opinions expressed above, I have to say that a netbook or its equivalent has become more or less essential equipment for someone like me, who travels a lot on business, and needs regular access to the interweb.

Much as I dislike the term, I guess I have to count myself as a corporate 'road warrior'. I use that term to mean someone who spends a lot of time travelling and needs access to information and to technology whilst, 'on the road." I connect to the web in hotels and airports. I write in my hotel room and while travelling on aeroplanes and trains.

One of the drawbacks of the term is the implication that the travelling is done by road. That is to say in a car.

I rarely use my car for travel. I use planes, trains, trams and taxis.

Also, given the increasing tendency for airlines to lose checked-in bags and damage those which they do not lose, I try to carry everything I need in my hand baggage.

For the last few years the weight limit for hand baggage on a cattle-class flight has varied from around 5kg up to 10 kg. Nowadays those limits have been lifted and there is no EU-wide policy on hand bag weights.

BA, my least favourite airline limits passengers to 23 kg. I'm not fool enough to carry that kind of weight around, so the practical limit for a hand bag is the amount I feel comfortable carrying. That's around 15 kg.

Because of these constraints I have, for over a decade, sought out laptops which weigh around a kilo.

In the early days this was impossible. My company issued me with their standard Dell unit which weighed in at around 3 kg, even without a battery. Add the battery, power brick, adapters and other add-ons, and the total weight came to 5 kg or so.

With a bag weighing a couple of kilo, that left me with only a couple of kg for clothes, a washbag, and other equipment needed for the visit.

The result of that was that I simply did not take laptop with me. It was too big and too heavy. Instead I preferred to use the hotel business centre which charged some extortionate rate for a couple of hours on a rented machine. Or, simply did the work when I got back to the office.

When the time came to replace the dusty old laptop which I never used, I persuaded the company to give me a budget and let me buy my own choice of machine.

My topmost, highest priority was Portableness.

I searched everywhere for something that offered reliable internet access for emails and web browsing and a good, tactile keyboard large enough to type properly. My investigations took me through top-line PDA machines, with external keyboards, to heavyweight laptops with all the power one could need.

I found a now-discontinued model made by JVC, the mini-note MP-XP731. This was the fore-runner of the modern Netbook.

It weighed 0.9 kg without a battery, and had a low specification in terms of memory, disk space and so on. The DVD re-write drive was external, and needed its own power supply, but I think I only used that a few times. If I needed to install software, I loaded the disk up on another computer and copied the files across the network.

The point, however, was that I took that little laptop with me everywhere and used it intensively. I think whenever we men compared the size of our equipment, it was the only thing to gain kudos for being tiny.

Although the price was higher (for a much lower spec) than the corporate standard, my employers got a massive return on their investment, as I took the thing everywhere and worked in the evenings, instead of simply watching TV and spending their money on phone calls home.

When that came up for renewal, I used the same approach to buy a Dell 420. This is a bit heavier at 1.5 kg with battery, but it is still easily portable enough to carry around, even including the charging brick.

The point of this lengthy response is that even low-spec computers are nowadays powerful enough to do pretty much everything a business traveller needs. In the past, we have seen laptop makers prioritise power and large displays over portability.

My guess was that corporate buyers thought their employees needed power, and that since many laptops come around 3 Kg, that sort of weight must be acceptable. It is not.

The netbook phenomenon simply recognises that a significant population favours portability over power.

I'll keep the Dell for a couple more years, but my next purchase will almost certainly be a netbook of some description. I'd hope for 50 GB or so of solid state memory; a keyboard large enough to be used for fast typing and internet access as routine. If it weighs less than 1kg and has good battery life, I'll buy it. If the cost is one fifth of the amount I paid for each of my last two mini-laptops, my employer will be happy.

It is quite possible that I'll be using videoconferencing more in the future. For that I'll keep the powerful Mac in the office. But I still think I'll be travelling, and for that, I need a lightweight, small and convenient machine which can easily manage emails, web browsing and text editing.

I need a netbook, even if that is not what it is called.

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