Nokia and Other Netbook Newbies Have Lots to Learn

I'm not against tech companies entering new markets. But what I am against is brands trying to cash in on hot trends by delivering products that fall well short of the established players, provide zero differentiation, or both.

When netbooks first started to take off, several companies came out of the woodwork to see if they could capitalize on the new category's momentum—and some of them had never made a PC of any kind. Sylvania—yes, the light bulb guys—gave it a shot and missed badly with a Linux netbook (at a time when Windows XP was clearly dominating). The company later tried to rebrand an MSI Wind, but by then consumers had moved on.

Then Archos stepped in with its Archos 10, which had a decent multimedia software bundle but was marred by a cramped keyboard (ASUS and HP were were already delivering much larger keyboards) and just over 2 hours of battery life (when other machines were lasting over 7 hours). It’s almost as if these companies weren't paying attention to what other netbook makers were doing or what shoppers were looking for.

So you would think that when Nokia’s first netbook launched this month at Best Buy—a good two years after the phenomenon had started—that the slumping phone maker would be able to apply the hard-knock lessons learned from those who failed to make a dent in the market. Not exactly.

At least the Nokia Booklet 3G stands out from the crowd. Available exclusively from Best Buy in the U.S., this silver machine sports a MacBook Pro-like aluminum design. It also gets 8.5 hours of battery life and offers high-speed integrated mobile broadband, which is why you need to pay $60 per month for data. (With an AT&T contract, the device itself costs $299, and $599 without one.) The Booklet 3G is supposed to boast Nokia’s broad suite of Ovi services, but our review unit included only contact-syncing software (for your Nokia phone only) and an Ovi Maps gadget for pinpointing your location (which we could not get to work).

The problem is that Nokia made some surprising rookie mistakes with its netbook. For starters, the keyboard is much smaller and less responsive than those found on any half a dozen competitors. And even though its Intel Atom Z Series processor allows the Booklet 3G design to be fanless, it’s slower than the N Series processor most netbooks use. Worse, Nokia saddled this system with a pokey 4,200-rpm hard drive. If you’re going to charge as much as $600 for a netbook when others are charging under $400, it should perform better than the competition and deliver at least the same level of ergonomic comfort.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want Nokia to give up. In fact, I wouldn’t mind seeing an 11-inch version of the same Booklet 3G with a dual-core Atom processor early next year. That extra screen real estate would also help Nokia design a larger keyboard. But the company will need to bring more to the table than improved usability to compete with the likes of Acer, ASUS, HP, and Toshiba. Earlier this week, it was reported that HTC’s CEO said he was very much interested in building a netbook, and I suspect that the company would leverage its strong software talent to create something unique—and learn from its first portable PC flop, the HTC Advantage.

I’m all for competition, especially if it’s going to push the established players to innovate. But I haven’t yet seen anything from these netbook newbies that would really make shoppers excited or the big guys nervous.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on twitter.

Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.