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Living with Failure
Will PCs (Start) to Replace Consumer Electronics?
by John McClain
March 14, 2009
Netbooks are becoming price and size competitive with certain classes of consumer electronics. Will this trigger a shift in the market?


For the past 10+ years I have been looking on and off for a small, quite computer to serve as a networked music player in the living room, kitchen, etc. I always found that the small computers were expensive and/or a pain to develop for so a year or two ago I gave up my search. Last week a friend of mine was talking about his new netbook and when I looked into it I was surprised to find that you can now buy a small, quite, complete PC for $250.

At $250 and less than 80 cubic inches (1.3 liters) these netbooks are becoming cost and size competitive with various classes of consumer electronic devices. Could netbooks replace phones, picture frames, media players, alarm clocks, GPS devices, radios, e-book readers, remote controls, calculators, weather stations, and portable game systems? The potential for this sort of shift exists because netbooks could enable entrepreneurial software developers to re-conceive these consumer electronic devices (really functions) in a network centric way (whether those networks are personal, local, wide area, or social).

There are a lot of "yes buts" here. In particular dedicated consumer electronic devices tend to have better industrial design and dedicated hard user interface elements (e.g. a snooze button). The hypothesis is that by moving consumer electronics to a generic platform new developers will be able to come into the market, bringing new features that will make using a netbook as phone/radio/etc. compelling in spite of generic industrial design.

Also the user interfaces of consumer electronic devices are often not that good. Yes telephones have an optimal interface for dialing a phone number, but they are really bad at doing anything else (getting your voice mail, picking up a waiting call, etc.) and who wants to dial a phone number anyway? You want to call Joe, not 555-3437. As we expect our consumer electronic devices to process more and more information good interfaces will require big color bit mapped screens, pointing devices, and keyboards.

Do I expect my next alarm clock to be a Netbook? Probably not. A full blown computer is still a bit expensive and a few more pieces have to fall into place (software platform? new form factors?). However my guess is that high end desk phones, portable video media players (though DRM is an issue here), and fixed location audio players are ripe for this sort of transition.

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About the Blogger

John McClain is a member of Sun's Jini Network Technology development team. His current responsibilities include technical lead of the Outrigger development team and ownership of the JavaSpaces Service Specification. Prior to joining Sun, John worked at Lockheed Martin on distributed simulation and at DEC on network printers.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2009 John McClain. All rights reserved.

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