What Does it Do?

It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes.

So, the ongoing quest to modernize my parents took an interesting turn over the weekend.

The Macbook Pro arrived at their house earlier than I expected, and I haven’t yet got them squared away with any intertubes. Thinking they might not want to wait, I suggested they unbox it and get acquainted.

Then I got a tough question.

If it’s not connected to the Internet, what does it do?

I fumbled this one. Word processing, games? I don’t really know. Nothing I said seemed very interesting, and they don’t have (or need) any software aside from a browser. So, they seemed content to wait for internets.

It’s an interesting question. What’s the first think you do to a brand new machine? Get it online. Beyond that you might have some software to install, but if you’ve never used a disconnected computer, what good is it without internets?

I guess it makes a stylish paperweight.

This question makes the case for netbooks, which now apparently account for 22.5% of all portable computer sales worldwide, up from 5.6% a year ago. Netbooks aren’t for everyone, and in this particular case, I quickly eliminated them due to size. My parents didn’t want to squint at a tiny screen with tiny font and type on an itty-bitty keyboard. Who does anyway?

This question also makes a case for full web OS, like Google Chrome OS. Some plausible screenshots emerged today, complete with giant icons. I guess the icons need to be that big for use on a tiny netbook.

But why stop at netbooks? Plenty of people out there have the same use case my parents do. They want a portable computer to get online, and they don’t need any locally installable software, just the essentials. This calls into question the need for any full-blown OS like Windows or OS X. If you don’t plan to use 95% of what the OS provides, why pay for it?

This market will develop very quickly, and it will cannibalize the other market segments.

What do you think? Did I miss something obvious that a disconnected laptop can do?

Do you think that a bare-bones OS that comes with a data plan is a viable market? I know some netbooks come with a slimmed-down OS, e.g. Ubuntu Netbook Remix, XP, Windows 7, but these aren’t natively web-only. Is Chrome OS targeting that market? Someone else?

Find the comments.




  1. I guess the world has passed us by (or maybe “passed me by”; I may only be speaking for myself here). Fifteen years ago, there were all sorts of things that you could do with a disconnected computer, and getting to the Internet was something extra.

    But when looking at the characteristics of a 2009 computer, one question would be whether it's a primary or secondary computer. We have a desktop computer at home, and for months I've been mulling the idea of a second computer which would be portable, and for basic functions. In my case, small size is a benefit, not a detriment, but if this is going to be your primary computer, a netbook may not be suitable.

    I tend toward the non-adventurous end of the scale, and while I was thinking about a Netbook Remix type of OS, now I'm leaning toward waiting until Windows 7 is available to consumers and making a decision then.

  2. Sure, but this isn't something my parents would want to do. They're paper people. The only real tasks they want to use the computer for are online.

  3. Yeah, my parents may eventually find installable software they want to use, but I'm starting to think that, for the average n00b, computers do one thing really well, connect to the interwebs. All the other jobs can be done equally well or better with other devices. This is the NC vision 13 years later.

    I agree that netbooks fit a niche as another computer, not as the primary one, which is why I see the market for a full-size laptop running a bare-bones, network OS as a huge one.

  4. Well, there's a) photo editing and b) movie-watching, but you have to be a) into that sort of thing, and b) weird like me and not own other devices for that. Otherwise, yeah, I find my usual workflows to be pretty hampered without network access.

    Oh, and bookkeeping type stuff (Quicken), which doesn't strictly require network connectivity.

  5. Sure, but I think these are tasks you'd collect after owing a computer. This is their first computer and neither one has used one much in the past. I thought about the movie one, but I knew they'd say “we can do that on the DVD player”.

    Way too paranoid for personal finance on a computer too. Plus, Quicken is hampered if you're not online, too much manual entry.

    This sounds like a corner case due to our collective digital experience, but it really isn't. Frankly, we may be the corner cases.

  6. Years ago we set up a Red Hat box, and as it was on a PC with a WinModem, we couldn't get it online. All sources of help help were online, so after playing for a while, we got rid of it, being scared by it being so new and different to what we were used to.

    On the PC, I mess about with Flash a bit, but am always on the web getting answers to things I'm stuck on, so without the web, it'd be a frustrating exercise, as I'm always getting stuck.

    BTW, your site was down for most of my working day again in the UK again – I tried q. a few times to access it. Still, I can view your content via the Email Subscriptions even if your site is down.

  7. Hmmm…went through a similar experience recently sending my youngest son off to college. It's all about the tubes for him: Facebook, iTunes, YouTube. Set him up with a new netbook. He's happy so long as he connects. Without the tubes, he sees the netbook as a paperweight.

    Never thought the connection thing would be such a big deal when I was teaching myself Lotus 1-2-3 macros all those years ago…who'da thunk it?

  8. Yeah, it's a funny little exercise, especially when you're trying to answer that question for a brand-new computer user.

    We're having issues with our host. We'll likely be switching soon. Sorry about that. I guess Feedburner polling happens via another process, kinda cool.

  9. Weird, right? When I got my first laptop, I spent a lot of time in Office, but that seems very antiquated now. Without a real need for a computer, it's pretty well useless without connectivity. Funny shift.

  10. Yup, I had to wrack my brain to come up w/ those three examples. Even though I'm in a geek-and-nerd household and my social circles also trend that way, it's pretty clear that our usage patterns are the corner case. 🙂

  11. Pre-interweb computers for me were about storing lists of information and school papers/assignments. While in college, I briefly worked at a graphic design company so a second draw for me to computers were about the cool visual things you could do. In high school, I would photocopy, cut and paste my own cassette covers to make bootlegs look realistic (although they were only black, white and shades of gray.) Now it could all be done on a computer. Sounds really OCD now…

    I've been thinking about getting a net-top pc for my kids so they don't crash our “real” pc with quicken, taxes, photos, and my wife's business documents on it. They only use the web and iTunes. Why risk real documents when it could all be deleted with the click of a link that says “you just won prizes or cash”? I'm not interested in getting them a laptop though because I don't trust them wandering around the house with it and not dropping it. We go through tv remotes and cordless phones too quickly. 🙁

  12. In college, I did the same, carrying papers around on floppy disks. I'm with you on the cassette covers, did that too, and yes, it's a bit OCD. I embrace that 🙂

    I guess kids are a good use case for netbooks, but it sounds like you'd be happy with a net-based OS. No need for anything fancy that could break the intertubes.

  13. Despite me being a sysadmin and software engineer, who you think could find umpteen+ uses for a disconnected computer, I'd be the same as your parents, with only one exception: television. If I had no internet access and didn't watch T.V. through my computer, I'd just walk away and do something else. Actually, now that I think of it, I might not even watch T.V. because I wouldn't be able to download T.V. listings. I would probably try, at first, to write some software, but without access to online documentation I'd quickly run into a wall.

    Had I been in your situation, my immediate, first answer would have been: “nothing.” My reluctant, second answer probably would have been: “well, you can spend time right now getting acquainted with the computer” (that's assuming they're anything like my mom who doesn't even know how to use a mouse).

    No internet = do something else like hone my culinary skills or read a book or chat on the pho—oops, nevermind, I only have VoIP.

  14. I did mention they could get acquainted with it, but that didn't sound like fun to them. Turns out they're better at using it than I expected, so that's a plus.

    It's a bit odd that we can't come up with a long list of what you can do with a computer, minus the internets. Makes me wonder what life would be like now w/o internets. Shudder.

  15. My mother-in-law
    A netbook would be perfect for her: a little web browsing and even less email.

    My father
    He writes articles / papers and he has a PDA with addresses and calendar. For him, being able to use the computer to write / edit / print and to backup his PDA were god-sends.

    My Mother
    She took a while to convince and it came down to printing the labels that go next to art in a museum. Then she eventually got used to editing on a computer (she was a trained legal secretary back in the day) and things got good.

    The other thing my parents use it for is shared financial records with automatic calculations since they track every penny they find on the street.

    In fact, my Mom spends a lot of time on the computer and the only internet thing she does is email.

    My wife
    iPhoto and iTunes.

  16. Interesting combination of users. Seems again that any disconnected use comes from a work need. If wonder if your sample is indicative for netbooks, i.e. 1 in 4 people would be best suited with one. I do think the small form-factor is a deal-breaker for older people, e.g. my parents.

  17. Write, edit photos, edit video, design graphics, program, keep financial records, keep track of things in spreadsheets, keep track of things in a database, keep track of things in a document, create a book, make music, calculate, rip CDs, digitize vinyl albums, make dvds, keep a contact list….

  18. All great use cases, but my guess is those came over time as you used the computer, not all at once. My parents are pretty much n00bs and generally distrustful of computing machines. Maybe over time I can ease them into some of these activities.

  19. Write, edit photos, edit video, design graphics, program, keep financial records, keep track of things in spreadsheets, keep track of things in a database, keep track of things in a document, create a book, make music, calculate, rip CDs, digitize vinyl albums, make dvds, keep a contact list….

  20. All great use cases, but my guess is those came over time as you used the computer, not all at once. My parents are pretty much n00bs and generally distrustful of computing machines. Maybe over time I can ease them into some of these activities.

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