The question is, a tablet, a laptop, or a netbook for travel – and then from which vendor? I am also going to break two of my personal rules in this article. The first is that I am going to post in the first person. The second is that I am going to assume that my personal experience with something is relevant to all of you. With those caveats out of the way, here we go. What follows is my journey in trying to find the device that I travel with and “bring” into any company that I work with. First of all here are the assumptions and caveats:
I have a really nice desktop computer. It is a quad core tower PC with tons of RAM (8GB), tons of disk space and I have two 22″ monitors sitting side-by-side. So my office computing environment is just what I want it to be. It runs Microsoft Windows 7, Microsoft Office, Google Chrome as the browser and assorted other things that I find useful.
A Laptop Does not Cut It. While I have owned portable computers since the very first luggable Compaq came on the market in 1987, when I travel it is usually just for a day or two. I usually travel with just a backpack so whatever device I pick has to fit in a pocket in the backpack. A laptop is just too heavy and too big. Sorry to admit this but an “Ultrabook” is just too expensive.
I ban all Apple products from my house. Now I realize that I just lost half of you with this one, but let me explain why. When IPOD’s first came out, music was $1 per song. I had two teenagers at the time. Each wanted 2,000 songs. I was not about to pay $4,000 plus whatever they got interested in every month for them to have portable music. Since intellectual property (ideas and software) feed my family, I was not about to tolerate downloading (stealing) music on the part of my kids. So I got a Napster to Go subscription (which has now become a Rhapsody subscription) for three portable devices and three computers for $15.00 per month. However I do have a more fundamental problem with Apple. I do not like the vertically integrated business model (one vendor controls the hardware, the OS, and even what apps and content you get). I grew up with Intel and AMD owning processors, Microsoft and Linus owning operating systems, everyone building their own applications and selling them independently, and content being independent of all of the underlying layers. For this reason I gravitate towards Microsoft for desktops and laptops, and Google for phones and tablets.
The Quest for the Perfect Portable Device
I used to have a Windows laptop from Toshiba. It was heavy, it was old and slow, and it died (after years of useful service). So now what?
Two years ago (when my laptop first died) I went to Fry’s to take a look. Netbook’s had just come out. I scored an HP Mini Netbook for not much more than $200. It ran Windows XP, it ran my Office applications, and in ran Dropbox which meant that I could have my files on it with no effort on my part (as all of my files that matter on my desktop are on Dropbox (yes Dropbox, I love you). But two bad things happened. The first is that the Netbook only had 16GB of flash storage (no hard disk) so I was constantly running out of “disk” space. The second was that it died. One day it just did not power on while I was on the road and I do not have the time to figure out how to resurrect it.
Now the Netbook died right before Christmas of last year and my wife was very enamored with tablets. Being an Apple hater, I got her a Samsung Galaxy 10.1 which is a very nice Android tablet. I set up her Dropbox on it and set up her Google Apps for Business email in it, and figured that if it was going to work for her it would work for me too. I even bought the nice (and over-priced) tablet/case from Samsung so that she would have a light and functional travelling computer (I built her desktop system and it is as nice as mine).
Now she goes on a business trip and cannot get the keyboard to talk to the tablet. She comes back and declares the tablet to the be the best $800 Angry Birds computer on the planet, but not worth much else. She suggests that I take it to replace my dead Netbook, but since it cannot really edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents, I decline. The Samsung table is now dedicated to an Angry Birds competition between my wife and myself. We have a lot of fun with this, but it really was a waste of almost $1,000 (including the keyboard/case).
So How to Replace the Netbook/Laptop?
Two weeks ago I faced the question of what computer to bring with me for a couple of upcoming business trips. I again went to Fry’s. They had lots of tablets on display, and very few Netbooks. I asked why. They said that tablets were selling like crazy and that Netbooks were being phased out. I asked them if they had a tablet that could run Windows 7 and all of my apps and they pointed me to a $1,300 Acer tablet. I said no to that idea. I asked about the remaining Netbooks in stock and they had an HP Mini with a 32 GB hard drive for a bit more than $300. I bought it.
So I am not cool. I am not one of those guys that wows you on the airplane with their cool tablet and their cool ability to consume content. But I bring up my new HP Mini and I get work done. I create and edit things and I save them as Word, Excel or PowerPoint files in my Dropbox on my Netbook and guess what? Those files are editable on my desktop computer at home and I even have access to them on my phone due to the Android Dropbox application if I have to email them to someone in a pinch.
My answer to my computing needs is a very high end Windows 7 desktop, a very low end Windows 7 Netbook and an Android phone. I am and will always be a non-fan of the vertically integrated Apple model. I will probably always pay a price in terms of complexity of my computing life for this bias. But being a free market economist at heart, I, like Shrek, believe in the value of layers. I believe that processors, system software, device design, operating system design, applications development and content are all separate disciplines with completely separate bases of comparative advantage. I believe that attempts to integrate across these layers in a proprietary and closed way will fail. Windows computers have always outsold Mac’s for this reason. Android phones are already outselling iPhones for this reason. If Microsoft could get its act together on the phone and tablet front, it could restore the natural economic order of the marketplace to the device industry. But that is the subject of another post.