SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. --The greatest "netbook" ever created was introduced -- wait for it -- 15 years ago by none other than HP. Called the OmniBook 300, this amazing machine had innovations that, if rolled out in a netebook today, would guarantee that HP would own the market.
The netbook market is being flooded by cheap, also-ran, me-too "ASUS Eee PC killers" that are becoming as commoditized and boring as desktop keyboards and mice. HP's own entry in this field, the HP Mini-Note, is OK, but will be buried in an avalanche of competitors cheaper competitors that have comparable features.
HP holds the key to bust this market wide open and run away with the big prize. They have the best netbook patents in the world. They have the engineering prowess. They have the partnerships and distribution channels. But do they have the vision? Or will they going to hand it all to competitors.
I've owned probably a dozen or so laptops, notebooks, tablet PCs and netbooks, and the one liked best was the OmniBook 300. At the time, I was the managing editor of Windows Magazine, and got a sneak peek at HP's new product a few months before it shipped. I was so blown away by it, that I shelled out an incredible $3,000 for one as soon as it was publicly available. It was the best $3,000 I ever spent.
(Interestingly, the OmniBook 300 was designed, managed and built not by the company's PC and laptop division, but by the calculator group.)
Here's what was different and better about the OmniBook -- and what would set it apart from and above all netbooks available today.
1. Superior keyboard. Will you just look at the keyboard in this picture? Unlike your average netbook's cramped, limited keyboard, the OmniBook 300 was a super comfortable speed demon. Key travel was limited, but it operated with a solid clickiness that make typing on it super enjoyable.
2. Magic mouse. The Omnibook had a round button on the right above the keyboard. When you pressed it, a small mouse about the size of a box of matches popped out on the right side. The back flipped up to make it easier to handle. The mouse was totally unique, fast, accurate and very easy to use. Instead of a ball or laser on the bottom, and a USB or other cable that transferred movement data electronically, the entire mouse non-electronic. It was connected to the unit by what some called a "popsicle-stick" connector made out of a single flat piece of sturdy plastic. When you moved the mouse around, it would move around the "popsicle-stick." Inside the housing, this movement sent commands to move the mouse pointer accordingly. When you were done using the mouse, you just shoved it back into its crevice.
3. Bullet-proof operating system. Instead of installing the operating system on a hard disk like every other system before and since, the OmniBook sold Windows already installed in ROM. Microsoft Office, too. That had two benefits. First, everything installed in ROM also executed in ROM, so the OS and the Office apps didn't use any RAM. Back then, this arrangement improved both performance and memory usage. Windows 3.1 required a minimum of 4 MB of RAM. But the OmniBook's minimum configuration was 2 MB of RAM -- it didn't need more. Today, installing an OS -- XP would be perfect -- would improve security, too, as none of the system files could be modified by malware.
4. Battery options. The OmniBook had excellent battery life, mainly because it didn't have a color screen. But if the battery died, and you were desperate for juice, you could remove the battery and drop in six AA batteries!
5. Super simple everything. The OmniBook had a row of launch keys, with the ROM apps (Word, Excel, etc.) pre-programmed, with additional keys that were user-programmable. Somehow this was really great, as you could just press a single button to launch everything. So simple.
6. Perfect dimensions. The OmniBook's dimensions were designed entirely around the keyboard. There was no surface plastic exposed on the system. The bottom piece of the clamshell was all keyboard, and it was just the right size. That made it wider than today's netbooks, but shorter from front to back. It was far easier to carry, too.
So HP, here's the plan. First, check your patents on all this stuff. Second, dig up an old OmniBook, dust it off, and recreate its many superior features -- same keyboard size, shape and key travel, for example. Same dimensions. Recreate the mouse exactly. Sell the netbooks -- brand it the OmniBook 3000 -- without OS ROM, then sell the ROMs separately in three flavors -- Linux, XP and Vista -- and let the user slide it in during setup.
Now add to it the best features from the HP Mini-Note 1000: 4 GB flash storage, 3-cell lithium ion battery, built-in webcam, Wi-Fi, etc.
If you really want to own the market, you can add one more thing that existed in neither the OmniBook 300 nor the Mini-Note 1000: A display with a wide-screen aspect ratio. Because of the dimensions of the OmniBook, you can have a wider display than any other true netbook, but it will be shorter, with cinema-like dimensions.
If HP built such a netbook, they would own the netbook market. They've got the patents. And they've done it before. But does the company have the guts and the vision? Or will they continue to be an also-ran nobody in netbooks while the best netbook intellectual property ever created is languishing in some Silicon Valley computer museum?