Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Netbooks, smart phones: Is more convergence ahead for mobiles?

As laptops get smaller and cellphones get more powerful, will they eventually become the same device?

By Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / May 27, 2009

Potent portables: The Palm Pre (right) and an array of netbooks from Acer, Lenovo, HP, and MSI Wind represent some options for Internet connection and communications.

Left: Newscom; right: AP


Will pants with really big pockets be a high-tech fashion statement in the next few years?

Skip to next paragraph

While cellphones and computers in general have suffered sales setbacks recently, high-end smart phones and low-end netbook computers remain two of the hottest electronic devices on the market. Might the gap between them someday be filled by a device that combines the best of each?

In some ways, the two products are already beginning to merge. The cost is becoming similar, with the priciest smart phones now more expensive than the cheapest netbooks (about $300). Wireless carriers are beginning to add netbook plans, plunging the cost of a netbook with a service plan to as low as $50, similar to discounted phones if users sign up for a contract. Manufacturers are beginning to put smart-phone chips and operating systems, such as Google’s Android, into netbooks. Meanwhile, netbook manufacturers such as Asustek are planning to make smart phones.

Both products are trying to satisfy the same need “to have something small, portable, and inexpensive with you that is always connected” to the Internet, says Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group in San Jose, Calif.

But a big gap in size remains. Netbooks fit in a large purse or a backpack, but not a pocket. That is leading to speculation that a company such as Apple might step in with a mid-sized “tablet” or “iPod-plus” device as early as next month. (Hence the need for those big-pocket pants.)

Smart phones – such as the BlackBerry, which is aimed at business users, and Apple’s iPhone, which is designed for consumers – offer many but not all the features of a computer in a pocket-sized device. Users can surf the Web, read e-mail, and do a number of other things depending on what applications are loaded. And, yes, the phones make calls.

Netbooks – with 7- to 10-inch screens – sport relatively puny processing power but enough oomph to handle most things people want to do on a laptop, such as check e-mail and surf the Web.

While many people would cringe at typing a long document using tiny smart-phone keys or a touch screen, netbooks have full, if sometimes crowded, keyboards. Which is not to say that smart phones can’t win a short typing sprint. CNET’s British gadget blog filmed a typing contest between an iPhone and a netbook with the volunteer typist riding in a race car going 80 m.p.h. around a track. The iPhone, with its predictive typing feature cleaning up some of the mess, tapped out “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” much more accurately.