CES 2009: Will Netbooks Change App Development?

The next generation of the hottest growth segment in laptops, netbooks, is on display at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this week in Las Vegas, where Acer, Asustek Computer, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Sony and others are showing their newest lightweight, $300 to $600 netbooks.

The popularity of netbooks, expected to increase during the global recession, has caught many high-tech companies off-guard, including Microsoft. By the end of 2008, nine of the top 10 PC makers had entered the once-idling netbook market, pushing shipments up 160 percent in the third quarter year over year, according to the NPD Group's DisplaySearch. The market researcher estimates 14 million mini-note PCs shipped in 2008, compared to 1 million in 2007.

Windows 7 for Mini-Note PCs?
The small footprint, 512MB to 1GB RAM, and solid state drives powered by Intel's Atom chip technology present particular challenges for the Windows Vista operating system. Vendors typically equip netbooks with Linux or Windows XP Home Edition, outside of a few models that run Vista Business Edition.

"Windows 7 requirements are not going to be any less than Vista was," said Rob Sanfilippo, lead analyst of development platforms at Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft. "I don't think it is going to make sense right away to run Windows 7 on netbooks. If you want your apps to be good citizens on netbooks, you need to think about what Windows XP supports."

According to Sanfilippo, netbooks cannot support the Aero desktop in Vista or much of the new functionality promised in Windows 7, such as ribbons, Jump menus, the device stage and new accessibility features. "Unless Microsoft announces some version of Windows 7 for netbooks, developers are going to be out of luck trying to target that market with those new features," Sanfilippo said.

Some Vista limitations, however, may improve with Windows 7, which was released in beta to developers on Wednesday. Taipei-based ASUS, credited with sparking the netbook market when it introduced the Eee PC running Linux in October 2007, announced this week that it will run Windows 7 on its ASUS S121. And many developers -- if they didn't blink -- witnessed Microsoft Senior Vice President Steven Sinofsky, head of the Windows 7 effort, demo the new OS running on an unidentified netbook at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference last October.

Although Windows 7 is built on Vista, Microsoft contends that it will start faster and offer better power management to help prolong battery usage. Analysts expect to see more netbooks that support touchscreen (Windows Touch is slated for Windows 7) and developers may want to think about how to take advantage of touch in their apps.

Headed for the Clouds
The sudden appeal of netbooks, forecasted by DisplaySearch to represent 16 percent of the global notebook market by 2010, throws new challenges into application development. Steps below the desktop and the laptop, developers will have to wrestle with whether to build apps that can run with mini-note PCs' hardware and software limitations. Most netbooks offer 8.9-inch screens at WSVGA 1024x600 -- a lower resolution than today's 1024x768. Netbooks can easily support Web browsing, Internet streaming, Web cams and office applications such as word processing, but these systems are not yet engineered to adequately display video and high-end graphics.

"My personal advice is for developers to start learning Web development and learning to harness cloud computer and Software as a Service," said developer Stephen Chapman, who reviewed the Windows 7 beta for Redmond Developer News and authors the UX Evangelist blog. "It would help to perhaps overcome limitations of, say, where you couldn't code an application to use DirectX, you could harness something like Silverlight through a Web app. If a netbook does have the capacity for DX9, then perhaps WARP 10 in Windows 7 will be a way for a developer to achieve DX10 graphics without DX10 hardware, but then it's a matter of how powerful of a processor any given netbook may have."

Don Burnett, a Microsoft MVP and interactive developer/designer, tackled the subject of developing rich Internet applications for UMPCs and mini-note PCs in a recent blog, pointing to functionality in Expression Blend that supports building scalable, resolution-independent Windows Presentation Foundation and Silverlight applications. According to Burnett, developers can effectively run their work environments, Visual Studio Express and Expression Studio on mini-note PCs.

Directions on Microsoft's Sanfilippo said netbooks cannot be ignored. "They are here to stay and they are going to get bigger in the next few years because they make a lot of sense," he asserted. "Given the economy, giving your workforce a $300 or $400 device rather than the $2,000 device certainly makes a lot of sense because you are probably going to get 80 percent of the productivity out of a netbook as you would out of a $2,000 or at least a $1,000 notebook."

For that reason, ISVs and enterprise developers need to start thinking in terms of "What do we have to do to make existing apps make sense on a netbook?" These considerations range from downsizing the UI and supporting graphics resolutions that are a little bit lower, to thinking about what kind of hard drive space you are going to have locally and what you might move to the server, or even looking at cloud computing solutions that would make more sense when mated with a netbook, Sanfilippo advised.

Developers also need to keep an eye on how much of their focus is on Windows 7 apps for desktops or notebooks versus whether something will even work with netbooks. "You don't want to bet everything on Windows 7 unless Microsoft comes out and says, 'This is going to be on netbooks too,''' Sanfilippo said. "So you don't have to worry about backwards compatibility to an OS that is going to be on netbooks."

Meanwhile, Microsoft's headaches are mounting in the low-cost portables market. This week at CES, several vendors are showcasing technology that could make its way into even lower-cost netbook platforms: Qualcomm Inc. is running Google's Android Mobile OS on its Snapdragon chipsets. Freescale Semiconductor is demonstrating ARM processors, expected to power ASUS netbooks running Linux at price points as low as $199. And graphics powerhouse nVidia is demonstrating its Ion platform, announced in December, which combines its GeForce 9400M GPU with Intel's Atom processor.

About the Author

Kathleen Richards ([email protected]) is the editor of and executive editor of Visual Studio Magazine.