Flash in the Pan
The excitement around netbooks needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt
One of the developments in computer hardware which has caused most excitement among game publishers in recent years is the arrival of "netbooks" - a freshly rebadged corner of the market which focuses on small, light laptop style computers, primarily designed for carrying out online tasks through a browser rather than running offline applications.
This segment is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, netbooks are cheap - the most expensive netbooks are priced at around the same range as the cheapest laptops. They are extremely portable, weighing very little and taking up little room in a bag. All of them are wi-fi enabled and many have a 3G data card built in, making them into highly connected devices. The dream of netbook designers is clear - this is, in their minds, the final step away from "a computer in each household", finally delivering "a computer for each person".
For game publishers, giddy with excitement at the explosion in casual and non-core gaming which we've seen in recent years, it's not hard to see why that's a tantalising prospect. If everyone is carrying around a netbook, everyone is potentially a gamer.
Moreover, the arrival of netbooks is heavily reliant on a further technological advance - web applications, which run in any standards-compliant browser rather than relying on a specific system architecture or operating system. This promises to make the diverse range of netbooks - which run on a variety of hardware platforms, and use operating systems including Windows XP, Linux and Google's forthcoming Chrome OS - into a single coherent target platform for developers.
Web applications are more suited to productivity and media than to videogames - but as countless successful web games have shown, a combination of modern HTML and Flash techniques can deliver fantastic experiences in a browser. Meanwhile, on the horizon, technologies such as the recently unveiled Gaikai streaming service could open up the potential of playing full-scale 3D videogames on a low-powered device, albeit at reduced visual fidelity.
Faced with such opportunity, it's no surprise to hear enthusiastic talk about the forthcoming netbook revolution from the upper echelons of the publishing world. This isn't restricted to games, either - in recent weeks I've also heard people from the print publishing world opine that netbooks will leapfrog e-paper devices such as Amazon's Kindle, while movie streaming services are regarding the platform with interest.
There is, however, a fairly significant fly in the ointment - or, to pick a more relevant animal metaphor, an elephant on the table. There's something nobody wants to talk about when the question of netbooks' shining future is raised, and it's this - right now, the user experience offered by netbooks is pretty terrible, and perhaps as a result, consumers are obviously much less enthused about the concept than the hardware industry is.
Netbooks are cheap and small, yes - but they are also extremely cheaply built, with even the most expensive and prestigious netbook devices suffering from flimsy, plastic components. The small size robs the netbook of the advantage which its low-powered chips should confer, forcing the battery life down to the point where it's no better than a normal laptop - and often actually worse. Meanwhile, undersized keyboards, small, low-quality screens and poor performance for media playback or complex script-driven websites conspire to create devices whose usability is nothing short of awful.
Some of those problems may be solved with time. OLED display technology is presently much too expensive to put in cheap netbooks, but when its price falls, it will offer better screens that need less power. Chipset technology improves apace, and even cheap netbook CPUs will eventually be able to handle HD video content without choking. Even the build quality will improve, although this may be at the expense of pricing.
Other problems with netbooks are inherent and may never be solved. Input is never going to be as good as a laptop, since keyboards and trackpads will always be smaller and less comfortable on a netbook. Connectivity - be it USB ports, external monitor connections or optical drives for DVDs or Blu-ray discs - will always suffer on a netbook. Meanwhile, the actual functionality of the netbook as a communication device will always be trumped by modern smartphones, which benefit from an external screen, a pocketable form factor and an always-on 3G connection.
Herein lies the basic flaw with the dream of the netbook as the "one computer per person" device that will unify the market - that device already exists. In fact, two of those devices already exist - the laptop and the smartphone. In recent years, laptops have grown smaller, lighter, more connected - while smartphones have become more powerful, sprouted bigger screens and better input interfaces, and started talking to the Internet. Netbooks find themselves bridging an increasingly narrow gap in the middle, neither as portable and connected as a smartphone, nor as powerful and useful as a laptop.
From a gaming perspective, it's clear that smartphones are an important emerging platform for game experiences. Laptops, meanwhile, are the standard platform for existing casual game experiences, as well as being popular devices for many more traditional games - especially MMOGs.
Publishers are still working to nail down the most successful strategy to address both of those platforms, and if anything, the buzz around netbooks has been a distraction from the important business of making sure that the growing number of people gaming on their laptops are catered for. It's all very well to talk about a netbook revolution in the future, but right now, how many games are released with a control system optimised for a trackpad or graphics designed for a 13" or 15" screen?
I simply find it hard to believe that in between those two important, rapidly growing markets, there's a sufficiently large gap in which a whole new platform can emerge - let alone become dominant.
Fascinating experiments by Intel and Microsoft with the UMPC platform, a hardware and software solution aimed at bridging the gap between laptops and phones, have fizzled into nothingness - largely killed off by the realisation that smartphones would inherit that market all by themselves. Netbooks, hampered by design constraints and cursed with cheap build quality and weak build quality, their market squeezed from both sides by rapidly improving phones and laptops, seem like an unlikely candidate to inherit the earth.