Feature creep

There’s a nice piece in this week’s Economist about the menace of feature creep.

Look at what has happened to netbooks — those once-minimalist laptop computers for doing basic online chores while on the hoof. Though palmtop computers and sub-notebooks had been around for decades, a Taiwanese firm called Asus introduced the world to netbooks in 2007 with its ground-breaking Eee PC. The two-pound device had a seven-inch screen, no optical drive or hard drive, and occupied half the space of a typical notebook computer of the day. It had all the essentials (and no unnecessary extras) for doing the job, and could be slipped into a briefcase, handbag or raincoat pocket and hardly noticed.

Seeing a good thing, rival makers rushed in with me-too versions—each purporting to offer improvements. The original keyboard was only 85% as wide as a full-sized one. Many people thought that just fine, especially as it offered the luxury of a seven-inch screen. For the past 20 years, your itinerant correspondent has cheerfully used palmtops with 62% keyboards and six-inch screens to check his e-mail, surf the web and file stories from odd places. The me-toos, nevertheless, deemed 85% unusable and increased it to 92%.

With the increase in keyboard width came an increase in the netbook’s screen size, room for a fairly hefty hard-drive, additional ports, a bigger battery—and yet more weight. Today’s netbooks are now the size of low-end laptops, with up to 12-inch screens, 160 gigabyte drives, one or two gigabytes of random-access memory, a video camera, and cellular as well as wireless transceivers. As a result, they now weigh well over three pounds and need a padded case to lug them around. The original concept has been lost in a blizzard of feature-creep.

Spot on. I’ve tried a lot of these NetBooks and still haven’t found anything that beats the original ASUS. The worst culprit, in a way, is the HP MiniNote which is beautifully over-engineered and has a lovely screen but is too heavy and bulky to carry round.