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The Glamour of Technology: Subnotebook Department

Gordon's Notes sends us to Charlie Stross, who promptly succumbs to the Glamour of Technology:

Charlie's Diary: Commoditizing our future: I've spouted off previously in this blog about my lamentable poor saving throw versus shiny! — not to mention my irritation at the refusal of the consumer electronics industry to render me bankrupt by actually giving me what I want. Trouble is, at long last they've turned around and done it. I have in my possession an Asus Eee subnotebook... £220... right now there's a certain scarcity value attached, and they haven't yet sunk to their real price, somewhere around thruppence ha'penny. But the process is becoming clear.

Back in 1998, I bought a notebook... Hewlett-Packard... 166MHz processor, 80Mb of RAM, a 4Gb hard disk, an external CDROM drive (reader, not writer), and a docking station... full-whack £1900 that bundle was going for a few months earlier.... Compare with the Eee. On processor and memory... 900MHz and 512Mb respectively. The disk space is the same, except the Eee uses solid state memory rather than a spinning mechanical thingy.... For an extra £80, I bought the Eee 8Gb of additional storage media (an SDHC card), an upgrade to 1Gb of RAM, and an external CD/DVD rewriter....

Moore's Law suggests that every component of a PC halves in price on a roughly 18-month cycle. A desktop PC today should be roughly 100 times as powerful as a desktop PC of similar price 10 years ago.... A naive soul with no prior experience of consumer capitalism might ask why, instead of doubling in power, the manufacturers don't concentrate on cutting prices? But that's not how the industry worked. Until now....

A couple of years ago Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab launched the idea of a $100 laptop for education in the developing world. Well, the OLPC XO-1 is now out.... Intel's reaction was the Classmate reference design, their own purported rival to the XO-1; the Asus Eee is what you get when a large far eastern OEM thinks "hang on, can we commoditize this and sell it in bulk?" Microsoft... failed to make it onto the Eee bandwagon because they wanted $40 for a Windows XP license — on a machine that starts at $250 for the stripped-down version. Mine runs Linux perfectly well, thank you, and comes with the basic stuff you need to be productive; OpenOffice, Thunderbird for email, Firefox as a web browser, and some other gadgets (like Skype and a webcam).

The Eee... is close to an order of magnitude cheaper than previous ultra-lightweight subnotebooks. And I think I'm going to use it as a pointer to a future trend.... The Eee is about 8 times as powerful as that 1998 Omnibook, at a quarter the price.... The dirty little fact everybody in the consumer computer trade have been trying to ignore... is that the computer biz is overdue for commoditization. There is no intrinsic reason why a kilogram of plastic and metal with a couple of silicon chips in it should sell for more than its weight in silver.... Apple have staked out a boutique territory for themselves, and more power to them for noticing that they needed to do that in order to survive: but that's a small lifeboat, and not everyone can market themselves on being cooler than everyone else.

The Eee isn't quite the disposable computing resource I've been wanting — they'll have to shave a zero off the price tag for that — but it's close enough for now. It does the basics I need, runs portable cross-platform applications and editing open file formats, and if I leave it on a train or sit on it or something my immediate reaction will be to swear, check my backups, and buy another one, rather than to whimper and go talk to my bank manager...