I have been reading a lot about netbooks in the blogosphere recently both in terms of the “next big thing” in hardware and whether Windows 7 will cure Microsoft’s woes in the market.   For those of you yet unfamiliar with the term, a “netbook” is a laptop that is typically about 3-lb in weight, with a 9-inch screen, wireless Internet connectivity, an Intel chip, running either Linux or Windows XP, and at a cost of less than $400.   A netbook, unlike a notebook, is more suited for accessing web-based applications and cloud computing, rather than running complex or resource intensive applications directly from the netbook itself.  As a portable device, it is basically a smartphone on steroids.

This type of device can be very useful for the road warrior attorney who mainly needs to check e-mail, surf the web, access web-based applications like Google Docs, and the like.  It sure beats lugging a larger, heavier laptop through an airport!  The price is also so low that it makes sense to have one as an extra machine just for travel.  This is what makes it the “next big thing,” and certainly worth looking into if you travel quite a bit.

As for  Windows 7, netbooks present a bit of a quandary for Microsoft.  As mentioned above, these machines usually run either Linux (many manufacturers are using the Ubuntu distribution) or Windows XP.  This is because of the scaled down CPU (most use the Intel Atom chip), smaller RAM allocations (many have 512Mb to 1Gb), and smaller screens.   This is because these specs do not present enough resources for Vista, and even early beta testing on Windows 7 is showing it would not be a practical option as well.  This is one reason why Microsoft is continuing to license XP on lower end machines like netbooks.  Unfortunately, Microsoft can’t extend its support for XP indefinitely; it has to come out with a newer OS that will run on this hardware.

Redmond is apparently trying to find some middle ground on this through a proposed version of Windows 7 for netbooks, Windows 7 Starter edition.  The problem with this version is that it can only run up to 3 apps simultaneously!  At least one tech blog has claimed this to be a “fatal flaw” in the OS for netbooks, and uses it as another reason why Linux may well come out on top on these devices, since it is an OS that runs much leaner and meaner than Windows.

On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal has reported that Microsoft will offer an upgrade to the Starter version that will not have this restriction, although no price has been set yet.  Even if the full version of Windows 7 would run effectively on a netbook, the upgrade cost would take away somewhat the inexpensive nature of the netbook option.  Linux proponents argue that this makes their OS a much more logical candidate for this hardware.  It is free (thus not impacting the overall cost of the machine and, if anything, lowering it) and is far more feature-rich than a stripped down version of Windows.

My overall recommendation is that if you are thinking about a netbook as an additional PC for travel, you should seriously consider one that runs Linux rather than Windows.   Since netbooks focus on web-centric app solutions that run within browsers, software compatibility is not an issue.  At worst you would have to learn your way around an open source browser like Firefox or e-mail client like Thunderbird.  Google apps would run just as well.  You would also get a more secure, stable OS.  Having been a user of Windows for close to 20 years, I found that using Linux was not all that difficult in a GUI environment.  You can always judge for yourself by getting a LiveCD (a self-contained version of Ubuntu Linux that runs from the CD when you boot the machine from it) and giving it a test drive.   I think you will find that Linux makes more sense for these devices.