VSJ – May 2009 – Sounding Board

Robin Jones worries about our inability to foretell the future or, in the more extreme cases, the present.

It’s exactly 50 years since Arthur Koestler published ‘The Sleepwalkers’. For anyone unfamiliar with the book (and, if you are, I’d heartily recommend a quick trip to Amazon) it’s a fascinating history of Western science, especially astronomy, from a uniquely Koestlerian angle. His take, conveyed by the title, is that not only are important scientific discoveries frequently stumbled upon rather than logically arrived at but that the discoverer is often unaware that he has, so to speak, stubbed his toe at all.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if technologists are equally prone to metaphorical somnambulism. Take text messaging, for example. The SMS system, more or less as we know it today, was defined within the GSM specification in the early 80s. It was designed to use spare bandwidth within existing signalling formats and so was essentially cost-free from the suppliers’ point of view. Given that early cell phone adopters were almost exclusively business users and that their previous mobile communication device was probably the pager, it’s not too surprising that SMS was seen as a business add-on and a relatively unimportant one, given that you could now actually speak to people while on the move. This worked so well that by the mid-90s the average user was sending one text every two months. Then teenagers discovered texting and now we send over 200 million every day in the UK alone. So, Teenagers 1, Technologists 0.

The trigger for this train of thought was the way in which the netbook market appears to be going. It’s not two years since the Asus Eee PC701 was launched. Its target market was clearly defined by the term ‘netbook’.Using a Celeron M processor, it was fine for a bit of emailing and Web surfing and that was about it. Then Intel introduced the Atom and suddenly everyone and his dog has a netbook offer. Acer, Dell, Elonex, HP, Lenovo, MSI, they’re all represented. And the specifications have become suspiciously elastic. Screens are becoming bigger and so are keyboards, making them usable for more than the occasional hunt-and-peck. Early models all used Linux to minimise the operating system overhead. Now, plenty are running Windows XP and Microsoft are talking up Windows 7’s netbook credentials. So aren’t we now just looking at the bottom end (in size terms at least) of the ultra-portable market? Or is there some specific use for which netbooks are ideally suited that’ll take the world by storm? I don’t know. I’m waiting for a teenager to tell me.

[Something you’d like to get off your chest? Email me (Robin Jones) at eo@iap.org.uk.]

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