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Flash in the pan

The excitement around netbooks needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt.

Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz' widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial is a weekly dissection of one of the issues weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.

One of the developments in computer hardware which has caused most excitement among game publishers in recent years is the arrival of "netbooks" - a freshly rebadged corner of the market which focuses on small, light laptop style computers, primarily designed for carrying out online tasks through a browser rather than running offline applications.

This segment is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, netbooks are cheap - the most expensive netbooks are priced at around the same range as the cheapest laptops. They are extremely portable, weighing very little and taking up little room in a bag. All of them are wi-fi enabled and many have a 3G data card built in, making them into highly connected devices. The dream of netbook designers is clear - this is, in their minds, the final step away from "a computer in each household", finally delivering "a computer for each person".

For game publishers, giddy with excitement at the explosion in casual and non-core gaming which we've seen in recent years, it's not hard to see why that's a tantalising prospect. If everyone is carrying around a netbook, everyone is potentially a gamer.

Moreover, the arrival of netbooks is heavily reliant on a further technological advance - web applications, which run in any standards-compliant browser rather than relying on a specific system architecture or operating system. This promises to make the diverse range of netbooks - which run on a variety of hardware platforms, and use operating systems including Windows XP, Linux and Google's forthcoming Chrome OS - into a single coherent target platform for developers.

Web applications are more suited to productivity and media than to videogames - but as countless successful web games have shown, a combination of modern HTML and Flash techniques can deliver fantastic experiences in a browser. Meanwhile, on the horizon, technologies such as the recently unveiled Gaikai streaming service could open up the potential of playing full-scale 3D videogames on a low-powered device, albeit at reduced visual fidelity.

Faced with such opportunity, it's no surprise to hear enthusiastic talk about the forthcoming netbook revolution from the upper echelons of the publishing world. This isn't restricted to games, either - in recent weeks I've also heard people from the print publishing world opine that netbooks will leapfrog e-paper devices such as Amazon's Kindle, while movie streaming services are regarding the platform with interest.

There is, however, a fairly significant fly in the ointment - or, to pick a more relevant animal metaphor, an elephant on the table. There's something nobody wants to talk about when the question of netbooks' shining future is raised, and it's this - right now, the user experience offered by netbooks is pretty terrible, and perhaps as a result, consumers are obviously much less enthused about the concept than the hardware industry is.

Netbooks are cheap and small, yes - but they are also extremely cheaply built, with even the most expensive and prestigious netbook devices suffering from flimsy, plastic components. The small size robs the netbook of the advantage which its low-powered chips should confer, forcing the battery life down to the point where it's no better than a normal laptop - and often actually worse. Meanwhile, undersized keyboards, small, low-quality screens and poor performance for media playback or complex script-driven websites conspire to create devices whose usability is nothing short of awful.