the iPhone is NOT a netbook, Mr. Jobs

Steve Jobs confirmed what I have long suspected: he has no clue at all what a typical consumer’s usage-model is for their personal computers:

A recurring question among Apple watchers for decades has been, “When is Apple going to introduce a low-cost computer?

Mr. Jobs answered that decades-old complaint by stating, “We don’t know how to build a sub-$500 computer that is not a piece of junk.” He argued instead that the company’s mission was to add more value for customers at current price points.

However, he gave a more nuanced answer to the question of whether Apple plans to jump into the “nascent” market for netbooks, essentially restating his comments on the question from last week at the Macbook introduction in Cupertino by saying the company was taking a wait-and-see attitude.

At the same time, he noted that the company already had a powerful entry in the category: the iPhone. (By that standard, Apple is already the dominant netbook manufacturer by orders of magnitude.)

The idea that the iPhone – sexy and cool as it is – is equivalent to a netbook is laughable. But what’s the real implication of Job’s comment? Is the iPhone a computer? If it’s a netbook, then yes, but it’s also sub-$500 in cost and therefore by Jobs’ own standard, “a piece of junk”. If the iPhone is not a computer, but a phone, then how can it be a netbook?

What IS a netbook? In essence, a small but full-fledged computer, weighing 3lbs or less, with full wireless capabilities and a real, physical keyboard. The gold standard is the Asus EEE, which has the added feature of a solid-state drive, which in my opinion is the must-have feature that provides power economy for all-day computing as well as boosted performance. The key however is that the netbook must be fully-functional, ie it should be able to run any software that the user desires. This idea behind a netbook is to be able to connect and compute anywhere. Since the iPhone is a locked-down device which only runs permitted applications, it can not and never be a true computing replacement. On my EEE, I can run MATLAB for scientific calculations, write a paper in Microsoft Word, edit my website templates, pay my bills, and even do an impromptu podcast. On the iPhone, you can only do what the pre-approved apps in the Apple software store permit you to do.

Now, it must be noted that Google’s Android platform – which is now officially open-source – does provide full-functionality computing. The only difference between an Android phone and a netbook will be the keyboard, and it’s not hard to imagine a simple keyboard-cum-case being developed that slots the phone in if you really need traditional typing ergonomics. Apple makes a nice device but it’s way out of its league here in even comprehending why netbooks matter, let alone it’s absurd claim to already be making them. Nice phone, though.

The Napkin PC

I love this concept:

Napkin PC

The Napkin PC design closely resembles a Napkin holder, combining multiple touchscreen devices within a collaborative network. Digital pens allow users to draw on these touchscreens just like they would on a napkin.

The design talks about collaborative work, but imagine instead if these were used in a single-user context instead. It’s almost the complete deconstruction of the PC into slices. One could imagine each being powerful enough to run a couple of web apps, so you might have one set aside on your fridge to rotate photos from Flickr, and another with an alarm clock and email app, for next to your bed. Another in the shower for watching streaming video or NPR audio, and one on your desk for notetaking. Manufacture the “napkins” cheaply enough and you have ubiquitous computing.

USB server

This is an idea that is long overdue – a USB device server:

IOGEAR today announced the release of its USB Net ShareStation, which enables network sharing of USB devices, including speakers and webcams.

The ShareStation (GUIP201) has a single USB 2.0 port, but can be connected to an AC powered four-port USB hub to support up to four devices. Devices supported include hard and flash drives, memory card readers, multifunction printers in addition to webcams and USB speakers.

This is a game-changer in terms of home network layout. Now, you can conceivably have a single network closet with your router, printer, external hard drives, etc and access them all freely iwth any laptop. There are various ways to do the same thing with other methods, such as printer sharing on a windows workgroup, a print server, a NAS, etc but this new device lets you do it all much mroe easily and with existing hardware.

Vista Me

I have completed my reinstall of Windows XP SP3 from scratch, on my new hard drive, for my Thinkpad. The thing that took the longest was getting my apps in order, a process which made me realize just how few essential apps I use, and how dependent I am upon them for my workflow. I think it’s even more clear after this process than before just how damaging a move to the Mac universe would be. And frankly, I had forgotten how great XP can be. Everything just works the way i want it, the way I know it.

With regard to Windows 7, the successor to Vista, Bill Gates promises the emphasis will be on performance this time around:

We’re hard at work, I would say, on the next version, which we call Windows 7. I’m very excited about the work being done there. The ability to be lower power, take less memory, be more efficient, and have lots more connections up to the mobile phone, so those scenarios connect up well to make it a great platform for the best gaming that can be done, to connect up to the thing being done out on the Internet, so that, for example, if you have two personal computers, that your files automatically are synchronized between them, and so you don’t have a lot of work to move that data back and forth.

In a nutshell, while Vista was all about security, Windows 7 will be about efficiency. It should be noted that a while back, Microsoft engineers demoed the core kernel of Windows 7, to run within 25 MB of disk space and 40 MB of RAM. Obviously that doesn’t include the GUI or the main OS features but its impressive to think that the essential core of Windows can be optimized that far down. And they aren’t done yet.

The truth is that for the modern computing environment, Windows XP trumps Vista by virtue of being leaner and more stable. I probably use my Asus EEE about 75% of the time, because it is so portable. The relatively slow speed (and lack of a big storage disk) are no hindrance because I sync my files to my main PC using FolderShare, and even the EEE has plenty of juice to run Office. However, it can’t run Vista, and given that the market for small PCs of the EEE variety is just starting to accelerate it’s no wonder that Microsoft is hinting about keeping XP around for a while longer. A lot of big businesses are also taking the long view, opting to skip Vista entirely and wait for W7.

We still don’t that much about Vista – Ars has a handy summary of just what we do know – but as far as my compute needs go, Vista is akin to Windows Me. I don’t need it, and I don’t want it, and I am going to wait for the “real” upgrade down the line.

Do velociraptors eat SSDs?

The WD Raptor has long ruled the roost in terms of raw hard drive performance. These are 10,000 RPM drives that are widely used in servers and high performance gaming rigs. They are expensive, and they maxed out at 150 GB if I recall correctly. However, WD is now releasing the next generation, the cleverly named Velociraptor series, and these things are probably the fastest hard drives on earth. But I think the name has a double meaning for WD, because the very existence of this drive is a clear sign that the days of rotating-platter hard drives are soon over. These raptors might be the pinnacle of their evolution, but their breed is going extinct.

That the Velociraptors are awesome drives is not in dispute. Part of their advantage is that these unabashedly desktop-PC-oriented drives actually use notebook-drive technology for better power consumption and speed:

The new VelociRaptor takes an untraditional approach for a desktop HDD with its 2.5″ drive design. The 2.5″ form factor allows the drive to be smaller, lighter, and more power efficient than its 3.5″ rivals.

But what good is a 2.5″ HDD in a desktop system which typically accommodates 3.5″ HDDs? Western Digital addressed that issue by affixing the VelociRaptor to an “IcePack” heatsink which allows the drive to fit into a standard 3.5″ drive bay.
When it comes to performance, Western Digital promises a 30% increase in performance though is SATA 3Gb/sec interface, 1.4 million MTBF, and Rotary Acceleration Feed Forward (RAFF) to improve performance in vibration-heavy environments.

Using a 2.5 inch drive surrounded by a stabilizing and cooling frame to round out the 3.5 inch enclosure is just brilliant. I think that the 3.5 inch format is itself a dinosaur of sorts – they do rule in raw capacity, but 2.5 inch drives are catching up, and their smaller platter size means they can spin faster and consume less energy.

The idea behind the velociraptors is to compete with solid-state hard drives (SSDs) on performance, while maintaining the cost advantage (at present) of traditional HD technology. And there’s no doubt that these monsters deliver. But as the Extremetech indepth review notes, it represents the pinnacle of hard drive technology. This is the peak of evolution, but SSDs are only just starting to evolve. The new generation of SSDs is on the horizon, and are already faster and cheaper than before, so the value and performance proposition of the VR is going to fall, inevitably.

Consider that SuperTalent is going to release a 120 GB SSD for only $699 shortly. The read speed is going to be rated at 120 MB/sec. As TGDaily notes,

When I bought my 32 GB SSD from Samsung in 2006 and put it inside Q30Plus notebook, SSD drive settled me back for almost $2K. But read speed of 120 MB/s was stuff dreams were made from. Performance of that drive, considered world’s best SSD – was in 35-50 MB/s read range (don’t ask about write). But even that was enough to beat default 1.8″ 4300 rpm drive. Now, imagine putting a 120 MB/s read, 40 MB/s write SSD in your notebook that is currently ran either with 5400rpm or even 7200 rpm HDD.

As the CEO of SuperTalent Joe James notes, SSDs are going to drop in price 50% every 9 months for the forseeable future (call this James’ Law). Couple that with continual improvement in performance as SSD makers gain more and more experience, and you can see the writing on the wall.

The traditional hard drive makers know it too, and products like the VR are only half their response. The other half is to try and buy time through delaying tactics – such as lawsuits:

Seagate Technology, the largest maker of computer hard drives, made a pre-emptive strike against an emerging competitor on Monday when it filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing STEC Inc. of patent infringement.

In the suit, Seagate contends that STEC’s solid-state drive products violate four Seagate patents covering how such drives interface with computers.

STEC, based in Santa Ana, Calif., makes solid-state drives for corporations and other large enterprises, a market that Seagate executives have said the company plans to enter this year.

STEC is a relatively minor player, so this lawsuit is Seagate’s way of testing the waters before going after the bigger fry like Micron and Samsung. It’s a desperation move, and it will fail, but it will give Seagate time to try to catch up.

In 5 years, every notebook will come with an SSD. Traditional hard drives are going to be relegated to cheap desktops, servers, and external drives for backups or NAS. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: The Velociraptor is dethroned from the performance peak.