Attack of the (EEE) Clones and the future of the EEE PC!
Well, it has been a fair few months since the first ultra cheap ultraportable sublaptop was released by ASUS, namely the EEE PC – few thought this single, largely under-hyped launch would change the face of mobile computing in the way it has. Personally I am delighted, I am a fan of both gadgets and small portable devices like this. I tried out an EEE PC at PC world a few weeks ago and was impressed at the build quality and size. More surprisingly, I was impressed with the screen which was the main source of my disdain being only 7″ and having a non standard resolution of 800×480. One thing I could not try out was surfing the internet- which a device like this is primarily designed to do.
Before the hate mail comes in let me explain, whilst the unit is very capable for a variety of uses, many of those will be in the ‘cloud’ and as a result, reliable and efficient internet browsing is essential. Since most webpages are designed for 1024×768, the 1st generation EEE PC and even the second (900 series) to an extent, will always be lacking in my opinion. Which is a shame. I really want to buy an EEE PC, but I know such a purchase would be based on a long festering impulse rather than any real need or desire. I carry around my 15.4″ laptop whenever I need to do any computing away from my home and it serves me rather well. Of much greater interest to me is where ASUS goes from here. Whilst other companies struggle to release their own clone (more about this later) of the EEE PC, the engineers at ASUS are clearly scratching their heads wondering where they can take this platform from here. In my opinion, there are two directions ASUS can go.
Direction one : More more more more! In a way, ASUS have already indicated this is their intention with the 2nd generation EEE PC laptop, the 900 series. It has a bigger screen as well as a number of other refinements which are great to see, however they still do not bring the machine upto par with an ultra-cheap full-sized notebook. Given the two units sell at comparable prices here in the UK, there really is no incentive to buy the 2nd Generation EEE PC. This coupled with some of the better specced models only being available with Microsoft Windows XP is also short sighted. If ASUS continue in this direction, then we will see a similar development to Psion’s 5(mx) -> 7 / Netbook with a larger, similarly underpowered system being produced. Off the top of my head, I would predict either a 9″ or 10″ screen, 20Gb flash HDD and no doubt other tweaks. There is no doubt, if the screen is of better quality (i.e. resolution and dpi) and the laptop is not substantially more expensive, it could make for a great addition to the EEE PC range; however, I am more interested in Direction two.
Direction two: No this is not some shadowy Orwellian organisation in the basement of a Cinema called “Freedom”* but rather, what my plan would be for the continuation of the EEE PC range. The expression “Stick to what you are good at” comes to mind, ASUS have found a niché which, in business parlance equals profit. More than that, by getting into bed with the open-source crowd, they have a lot of “value-add” through third party modders and hackers – one just needs to look at the number of Operating Systems that now have been run on the EEE PC to see this. In six months time, there should be a new EEE PC, lets call this fictional product the 71x series (so 711, 712, 713 and 714 to match current 1st gen model numbers) and put a higher resolution screen maybe in a 7″ or 8.4″ form factor into it. RAM options seem perfectly adequate at the moment, but allow the addition of traditional platter HDDs as well as the 1st Generation flash drives as options. The idea that, as higher capacities of flash discs drop slightly, they are immediately incorporated into the next generation of EEE PC device is frankly ridiculous, the cornerstone of the EEE PC philosophy was value – something ASUS seem to have forgotten with their 900 series laptops. Using the same flash hard drive capacities as the first generation (e.g. 2, 4 and 8Gb) or offering traditional platter harddrives (in 10, 20 or 30Gb sizes) would lower the price of the product whilst preserving the original fanbase as well as enticing new customers.
The only downside to direction two is the number of companies eager to get a slice of the pie. Recently, DELL, HP and ACER added their names to the list of companies developing laptops for this formerly niché market. Whilst companies like Acer (in my experience) have never been particularly concerned over quality, others like DELL, HP, VIA are. Its not just these companies who are after a slice of the market, Elonex, MSI, OLPC and others have either expressed an interest in or have released comparable products. The question remains – stand still and possibly get left behind or innovate and put the price up. There is no easy answer, but I believe the EEE PC brand has a lot of clout for being both first and for being good quality. These two factors will keep ASUS onto of this niché market, provided they keep on track and continue to impress us.
On a side note, Cnet have a great side by side comparison that’s worth glancing at.
*Believe it or not, there actually was a secret Soviet KGB/GRU interrogation facility in a Cinema called Wolność (Freedom) in Krakow during the Communist era – its the kind of thing you just can’t make up. Apparently they always had a habit of playing their films a bit loudly there…