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January 6, 2009

Where netbooks and mobile phones collide

ESPOO, Finland – In the past year, I’ve been watching how netbooks, small hardcover book-sized computers, have been slowly gaining traction. These highly mobile net-connected devices are encroaching on the smartphone space. Indeed, with mobile network operators such as Vodafone offering netbooks with 3G dongles, the line between mobile computing and mobile phones is rapidly blurring. Furthermore, a recent start-up set off the first salvo that will not only make notebooks the disruptive device of 2009, but further drive the fusion of mobility and the Web.

Read on for further elaboration.

Mobile lifestyle vs mobile computing

Part of the amazing success of the mobile phone is due to its ability to fit into our “mobile lifestyle”. A mobile phone is non-obtrusive, working in the background, politely interrupting us for a call or message. We can then use it while mobile (for example, walking), with one hand, and then slip it back into our pocket when done.

Computing, even when mobile, is a foreground activity, requiring our full attention, two eyes and two hands, and a horizontal surface (more like portable computing than really mobile).

I claim that smartphones try to bridge a mobile lifestyle (background, one hand, interruptive) with mobile computing (foreground, two hands, two eyes, immersive). At different times one has different levels of immersion with a smartphone, switching between the flow of a mobile lifestyle and the deep attention of mobile computing. Also, different smartphones are better suited for different parts of this spectrum. For example, an N-series phone is more a phone (interruptive, mobile creation and communication), while an iPhone is more of a computer (portable immersive consumption).

Mix in the Web

Where things get more interesting is when these mobile devices fuse with internet-enabled apps. Here I see a further split in how folks think what a mobile device should do.

The early push of the Web on mobiles was about browsers, turning mobile phones into little windows to the Web, making phones just a dumb terminal to consume Web content. Yet, the best Web services on mobiles today are the ones that best support the mobile lifestyle, enhancing the background, interruptive work of the mobile, whether it be around music, messaging, navigation, or quick info.

What’s more, I think mobile devices are also starting to project themselves on the Web. As personal devices, mobile phones are more than just dumb terminals, but are social networking tools and sensors that add value to internet-enabled services, services in the Cloud.

Netbooks seem to have been created with highly-portable computing in mind. But, a new company, Jolicloud, is set to unleash the netbook’s true potential and turn it into a terminal to access Cloud services. Just as hitching up a mobile phone to the Cloud increases the phone’s ability to store and run applications, so too with the netbook. A lonely disconnected device becomes a computer with the capabilities of the Cloud.

Window or projector?

Which leads me finally to the philosophical clash between the Cloud-phone and the Cloud-book. As phones fuse with the Web, they are more than just windows, but are becoming nodes, sources, projectors in their own right, contributing info and content to the Cloud. Netbooks, in contrast, will strongly become terminals for the Web, a small portable window into the Cloud.

Will netbooks influence what smartphones are expected to do? Are mobile network-connected devices better as screens and terminals or as nodes, origins, or sensors? What will be our main use of Cloud devices, as windows or as projectors of what we do with them? And what will happen to devices like the N97, caught somewhere between being a phone and a netbook?

I have my thoughts on how this will play out, but what do you think?