When the Nintendo Entertainment System first arrived on the American continent, Atari, Inc. immediately recognized the threat and responded with a series of misguided commercials touting the 2600‚Äö√Ñ√¥s impressive library of video games on store shelves. The company redesigned the device‚Äö√Ñ√¥s housing, slimming its profile, and reminded consumers of its ease of use for grandma and grandson alike ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ one black joystick, one orange button ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ and so strummed the instrument of nostalgia. Though, for example, Pac-Man was a notorious failure by Atari developers, it could be argued that it was better than Nintendo‚Äö√Ñ√¥s lack of any Pac-Man at all.
While powerful memories of 4-bit sprites dancing across the screen, coupled with the kindness of the human mind vis-‚àö‚Ä†-vis entertainment, were indeed effective to an extent, there was something pitiable about this marketing. It was very clear from the moment Mario and Luigi leapt onto the cultural landscape and ventured into chartreuse and mysterious piping that Atari‚Äö√Ñ√¥s days were not only numbered, they were over, that everything had changed, and the device would never regain its footing. Within minutes, its technology was not only surpassed, it was forgotten, and the proverbial race had ended before it had even begun.
History, it would seem, is repeating itself. The netbook is obviously the frail child of the laptop. It is smaller. It is cheaper. It is slower. They keys are generally so miniscule that one would be justified in assuming they‚Äö√Ñ√¥d been pried from a TI-80 and arrayed in a traditional Qwerty layout. It plays, again, to the nostalgia factor of consumers. It plays to our comforts. We are used to Windows XP. We are used to Microsoft Office. We are used to arrows and a trackpoint or trackpad interface. (And as such, our microvascular surgeons are used to performing carpal tunnel procedures and purchasing expensive sports cars.) But again, to find a commercial for a netbook is to experience only pity when it is followed by an advertisement for the iPad. Apple‚Äö√Ñ√¥s creation is the harbinger of the destruction and the absolute obliteration of a portable industry which had tied its fortunes to the Fredo Corleone of computing devices.
One may dislike Apple. One may dislike its control over the App Store. One may dislike even the turtle-necked aesthete pulling the levers, Steve Jobs, and the minimalist designs of Jonathan Ive. But one cannot with a straight face argue that the netbook will one day supplant the iPad as paragon of the portable industry. The beginning and end of that debate took place on the same day.
The iPad is here. The netbook is all but gone.
The iPad has but one serious flaw, and that is in its perception of being a device for consumption as opposed to creation. Daring Fireball‚Äö√Ñ√¥s Jonathan Gruber has done a heroic job noting and linking to artists, academics, developers and visionaries unrestrained by the petty imaginations of our mammalian brains. One, however, should look even at day one, during the Steve Jobs keynote unveiling of the iPad, when the first version of Brushes was demonstrated to moving affect. Similarly, Pages, Numbers, and Keynote for iPad are each quite good in a pinch, and even better when used in conjunction with a wireless keyboard. As a device for content creation ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ say, a WordPress blog post ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ one can save pubic domain images to his or her iPad from the web and use Mobile Pond‚Äö√Ñ√¥s Photogene and reorient, resize, edit, crop, and otherwise manipulate the image. This image can then be uploaded by means of iPad software. Blog content can be typed or dictated on the go through Nuance‚Äö√Ñ√¥s Dragon Dictation. Without being obtuse, it is hard to find a limitation that cannot be overcome by the determined power user or the curious novice.
The iPad is coming into its own with regard to content creation in an entirely new way, by breaking free of the self-imposed manacle of the netbook paradigm. Indeed one can scarcely look at the marketplace and say that the laptop has a future at all. The future is flat. The future is touch screen. The future is wireless. The future can be pulled out of a bag and has two buttons: one that turns it on, and one that takes it home.
We are very rapidly reaching a day where a netbook could be offered even for free, and yet never be used to its potential, if used at all. As opposed to the iPad, which is engineered and crafted to be something heretofore unseen and unlike any of its forbears, this is understandable. The netbook is designed to be cheap and crippled, and that is no view of the future, but a very clear portrait of the past.
So while we shall always celebrate the achievement of the Atari, it remains to be seen whether the loss of the netbook, with its one-hundred-and-one keys, will be so lamented and fondly recalled. The single button is back, only this time Apple is at the controls.
Bio: D.B. Grady is author of Red Planet Noir, winner of the 2010 Indie Book Award for Science Fiction, and a regular contributor to The Atlantic. He can be found at dbgrady.com.
Image courtesy of:¬¨‚Ä†One Girl Creative