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Netbook Applications: The Bare Necessities

The more time I spend crunching numbers on even moderately sized datasets, the more frustrating my current hardware setup becomes. Things are desperate enough that my Thinkpad X301, which maxes out at a mere 4 GB of RAM, is becoming a better performing alternative to my aging, dying Sun Ultra 20 workstation. How sad is that? But at least I have a schedule to address that situation: a crazy tricked out workstation is – at least in theory – on the way.

With my workstation needs in all likelihood addressed, the big remaining question for me is what’s at the opposite end of the spectrum. Back in December, I discussed the fact that I was transitioning from a general purpose laptop only model to one characterized by more specialized hardware. Big, monstrous workstation for analytics, virtualization, testing and the like, complemented with something much smaller and lighter for all the travel. Something netbook or smartbook-like, in other words.

Something that probably won’t run most or all of the applications I’m used to relying on, with the notable exception of a browser.

When I first began looking at Moblin a while back, people told me that it was nice, but that I’d miss the standard application set of my operating system of choice, Ubuntu. Interestingly, the trend in the space is actually towards even fewer applications than Moblin allows; the Lenovo Skylight, one intriguing option, is preloaded not with a standard application set, but with widgets running on top of a thin Linux film. Chrome OS, of course, goes even further, dispensing with the idea of applications entirely and pushing a browser only experience.

True, there’s the iPad, but that’s more or less a non-starter because I require a physical keyboard to be even remotely useful. The touchscreen keyboard works on my iPhone because that’s a device I use for reading, not writing: whatever I end up taking on the road will need to be equally comfortable with both.

The good news is that my application needs are actually relatively few. I have no intention to ask a netbook to handle a general purpose laptop’s workload. Things like a media player (Banshee) or virtualization platform (VirtualBox) that I use now are certainly not must haves in a mobile device. I’m more reluctant, however, to give up Emacs. Mark Pilgrim is aggressively agnostic when it come to the choice of text editors (not to mention frustrated with the recent crops of new writing tools), saying:

Picking the right text editor will not make you a better writer. Writing will make you a better writer.

Which is true. But I’m not looking for a text editor to make me a better writer. I’m looking for a text editor to make the task of writing more enjoyable. Easier. Simpler. Less complicated. And so on. Emacs does that for me, mostly, though I need to spend some time looking up how to make writing HTML natively simpler. Google Docs, on the other hand, does match the Emacs authoring experience.

Could be I’ll find a browser based text editor I like as much or more than Emacs: stranger things have certainly happened. But I’m not counting on it, and I’m not looking forward to it. Ymacs is interesting, but not the same. Bespin doesn’t have Etherpad‘s zero latency. And Etherpad is just plain going away, unless you want to host your own Scala codebase.

The other missing piece for me will be a terminal (no, I don’t use Emacs for this, generally). True, on something like Chrome OS that abstracts the underlying operating system away, it’s kind of pointless for local work. But I’ll still need to spend a fair amount of time adminstering remote servers. And do I really want to SSH into my servers from a third party, browser based SaaS terminal service. No I do not.

None of this means that I’ll miss the applications enough to forgo the hardware form factor. The chances are excellent that by the end of the second quarter at the latest, you’ll spot me at a conference touting some kind of new, lightweight device. But the transition is going to be interesting. While I don’t use all that many applications in general, the ones I use, I use a lot.

So get to work recreating Emacs and a terminal in the browser, will you? You’ve got until the end of Q2.

Categories: Laptops, Mobile.

  • V

    Try Moblin based on a “regular” operating system like Ubuntu or opensuse. Or try out the Plasma Netbook interface.

  • Kevin

    I came across MindTerm which would seem to do what you want for SSH in a browser.

  • Sam

    I am continually puzzled by the idea that Ubuntu will not run on a netbook. This is an Acer Aspire one, one gig of ram, 160gig hard drive, 1.6 gig dual core processor.

    Yes, sometimes it maxes out on CPU usage, but in all other ways, it performs outstandingly. It came pre-installed with Windows XP and I installed the Ubuntu 9.04. The XP has never been booted. I’m so used to it, that I now think of a regular laptop as a “lugable”.

    Has all the standard programs, plus a bunch of stuff I’ve added.

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  • Sam Kleinman

    I am very heartened that you’re an emacs user, and as a fellow emacs user I totally sympathize with your hesitancy to give up emacs.

    I don’t expect that it would be difficult to get a lightweight linux system running on a netbook, that had a very minimalist installation that included the basics: (emacs, a chrome/firefox, mpd/gmpc for music, other odds and ends) inside of a slim window manager: (e.g. openbox, or one of the tilers). Chrunchbang (an ubuntu flavor with a lightweight feel) might be a good starter. I live in a setup like this, and rarely if ever crest a gig of memory used. I’ve also started experimenting recently with putting my whole “desktop rig” on a remote server and using Freenx to connect to it. For the moment, “remote,” is on the LAN, but I suspect it’ll scale a bit beyond that. No overwhelming successes, at the moment, but I suspect that’s due to the quirkiness of my setup.

    The Freenx solution (make the X11 protocol more efficient) seems to be an interesting and useful play. Rather than try and bend HTTP/HTML into something it doesn’t do very well, Freenx gives you what you really want (desktop applications) with the “cloud” features that you really care about (remote access, low latency, remote storage). Having said that, the Free-as-in-beer client lacks a bit of polish, and depending on the remote linux of your choice, configuration might be a bit difficult to manage. It’ll be interesting at any rate.

  • carmen

    emacs and a keyboard and a day of battery life should be something we have in 2010 right?

    as far as i can tell its just a matter of shipping a Nokia N900 with a physical keyboard and 8″ or bigger screen

    has anyone tried that Cherrypal ARM netbook?