Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment.
In a year in which the OLPC foundation turned attention on its child-optimized OLPC stateside and Palm's backbone curved as it contracted Foleosis, an unlikely ultraportable rose to capture enthusiast praise.
Arriving late and at twice its original touted price of $199, the Asus Eee has succeeded in the muscle-driven PC market with modest screen size, processor, RAM and storage specifications and solid (but not outstanding) battery life. Its name and design philosophy take unabashed cues from Nintendo's Wii. And like its inspiration, it's been a budget-conscious blockbuster.
Reuters reports that Asus is now shipping 20,000 of the 2 lb. mobile computing quasi-appliances every month. The Taiwanese manufacturer has been so encouraged that it has raised its global forecast to five million Eees by the end of 2008 as it aims at becoming the fifth largest notebook PC company by 2010. Those are the kind of numbers that could make the top four take notice, setting off a frenzy of melodramatic pound-shedding to rival The Biggest Loser.
In contrast to relatively mainstream notebooks with 12-inch screens offered today by market leaders HP and Dell, the Eee has a measly 7-inch screen that puts it in the range of ultramobiles. Unlike Samsung's Q1 UMPC, however, the Eee adopts a more traditional clamshell laptop design, trades a hard drive for a small amount of flash memory, and ships with a version of Xandros Linux that includes some closed-source software to smooth the web experience.
Like HTC's Touch smartphone, the Eee's default user interface looks simply inviting at the uppermost level but quickly reveals a layer of complexity closer to Windows. Which leading PC notebook companies are most likely to fill the Eees shoes? I've rated some major notebook PC vendors on a scale of one to three "E"s, with three "E"s being the most likely to launch an Eee competitor.
The Eee's success may attract Sony and Toshiba -- the latter a more distant pioneer of the ultramobile market with its Libretto products -- to examine the potential of such a device, although the Eee's media mediocrity likely reduces its appeal for the Vaio family. Sony also has its lightweight computing portfolio well-stocked between the UX handheld and the TZ ultraportables. Likelihood, Toshiba: E, Sony: E
HP, which keeps a toe in the PDA market, has a long history in lightweight mobile clamshell products. It pioneered ROM-based mobile QWERTY devices with the 95LX and OmniBook 300, and had a number of Windows CE-based "Jupiter" devices with keyboards; products such as its Jornada 800 were in some ways precursors to the Eee. It has also experimented with some unusual PC form factors (such as the TouchSmart PC and HDX), but these have high-priced powerhouses. Likelihood: EEE
Dell's acquisition of Zing, which provided the software for Sansa's Connect, could also be the basis for a mobile computing appliance, although it would require filling in many application gaps. The company has tended to sit out fads, but the "new Dell" may be more embracing of change. Likelihood: EE
Easily the most anticipated entry into the category would be from Apple. The iPhone and iPod touch revealed that it has not only a rightsized version of OSX ready to go on such a device, but a library of suitable application to flesh it out, including Safari, the iWork suite, and photo and music-management applications. A previous Switched On hashed out how Apple might position such a device versus its high-flying MacBooks. Likelihood: EE
And then there's the Foleo, which came so close to achieving the Eee's success. Much of the original Foleo's design read like a fulfilled wish list for the Eee. It had a larger 10-inch screen better suited to the girth of modern sites (such as this one) and a more usable keyboard with a sleeker design and longer battery life. Unfortunately, the Foleo's efficiency came at too great a cost in terms of functionality. Its confusing positioning promoting smartphone codependency combined with Palm's shifting development priorities led to a marketplace retreat.
If Palm can match the price and appeal of its original hardware with the benefit of improved processor speeds and an application suite that stands on its own, a resurrected Foleo could prove strong competition for the Eee. And at next month's Consumer Electronics Show, Everex will show off a Via-based ultraportable dubbed the Cloudbook (previously known as the Nanobook). A previous incarnation of the device was slated to sell for well over $500, but this feature-reduced version is slated to cost $399, the same price as the best-configured Eee.
While it is unclear which companies will take on the Eee, it is nearly certain that more companies will be inclined to put "aye" after "Eee" in 2008 and beyond.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at http://www.rossrubin.com/outofthebox. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.