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SEAT 2B | By Joe Brancatelli

Business Travelers Revel in Gadgetry

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By Joe Brancatelli
Portfolio.com: Business Travel
Tuesday, March 3, 2009; 10:13 AM

When I cracked the box on my $350 "netbook" computer, my inner geek cheered. I thought I could finally ditch the six-pound laptop behemoth weighing down my carry-on bag.

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My frequent-flying wife looked at the little blue Acer Aspire One and dismissed it as nothing more than a larger BlackBerry. But when she realized that it weighed just two pounds and would fit easily in her pocketbook, she borrowed it for a two-night business trip. Her verdict: It was "pretty good" and "better than carrying a big laptop."

Several days later I took the netbook on a weekend trip. My fat fingers had trouble with the keyboard. The touchpad was atrocious. The built-in webcam and microphone helped me ace a few video conferences. The 8.9-inch display was sharp and clear, but the screen was too small to view documents without repeated scrolling. "It's a big BlackBerry," I grumbled.

And so it goes in the world of mobile computing. As the line between traditional laptop computers and smartphones blurs and new ideas like netbooks arrive, business travelers face a new series of choices about what to carry on the road.

Is a new generation of super-powered BlackBerry devices the future of on-the-road computing? Or is the iPhone our destiny? How big will portable computers be? How many of these things will we tote along with us every time we hit the road? Is the mythical "convergence" machine -- one device that effortlessly and stylishly handles phone calls and computing tasks -- on the horizon?

Questions, I got a million of them. Machines, almost as many. Answers, not so much.

"If you had the answers, you'd be the next Bill Gates," one long-time computer executive told me last week. "We're all struggling with devices, concepts, pricing, computing platforms. There are lots of cross-currents and no consensus."

In case you haven't shopped for a smartphone or mobile computer lately, let me give you the bullet points of how the market has changed:

* Almost 15 million netbooks were sold last year, according to the research firm DataBank. If the concept of "netbook" is unfamiliar to you, consider DataBank's definition: They are machines that have "similar functions" to a laptop computer, but cost much less (below $650), weigh much less (under three pounds), and have smaller screens (seven to 10 inches) and smaller footprints.

* An estimated 18 million iPhones have been sold since it went on sale in mid-2007 and Apple has redefined the feel and functionality of smartphones. BlackBerry has responded with an array of new phones, all with iPhone-like Web browsers and media players. The iPhone and Blackberry have spawned a dizzying collection of third-party "apps," many productive (budgeting and expense tracking), many fun (even PacMan lives on smartphones) and some just silly or tasteless (competing "fart joke" widgets for iPhone).

* Google, the search behemoth, has built its own operating system, called Android, and released its first smartphone, the T-Mobile G1. A burst of new phones and laptops based on Android is expected to reach the market this year. "The platform of the future is Android. It's the pathway to doing more computing online," says Phil Baker, the columnist, author, and inventor of the folding travel keyboard.

* Traditional laptops, losing sales to the cheaper, smaller netbooks, have nevertheless displaced desktop PCs as the computer of choice. Only one of Amazon.com's top 25 computing devices is a desktop; all the others are laptops or netbooks. And while the least-expensive laptops are specifically targeted as desktop replacements, a new generation of ultra-light, fully powered notebook systems like the HP EliteBook are vying for the top end of the market.


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