What was the first netbook?

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I wasn't aware that there was a question about what the first netbook was, but Anthony, a blogger at the Coffee Desk, asserts that 1996's Toshiba Libretto 70CT was the first netbook. Ah... no.

His post was then picked up by Slashdot, and, to my surprise, most of the people there also don't seem to know what the first netbook was. Odd.

So, let me start from the top. What is a netbook anyway? First, legally speaking, Intel is fighting with Psion, the UK hand-held OEM, over who owns the trademark. I'm not interested in that aspect of the conversation and I don't think anyone outside of marketing and legal circles is either.

OK, so technically speaking what's a netbook or, to use the long-winded phrase we used to use for them, an UMPC (ultra-mobile PC). According to Anthony, it wasn't size alone. The Toshiba made the grade because it was the first to use infrared and PCMCIA-based phone card connections and it also included a Web browser, Internet Explorer 2.0.

Sorry, that doesn't make it. Someone somewhere may have used infrared for networking, but the only common use for that technology was to talk to printers. If you're just going to use really, small computer that can work with the Internet as your definition, I'd consider 1988's MS-DOS-powered NEC UltraLite -- one of my all time favorite computers -- with its modem just as much a netbook as the Libretto 70CT. Goodness knows that in those pre-Web days, I used it to connect to the Internet with PPP (Point to Point Protocol) all the time.

For that matter, I used the 1983's TRS-80 Model 100 with its 300-baud modem to connect as a terminal to Internet sites. I consider the Model 100 more an ancestor of the PalmPilot than a netbook forerunner. The UltraLite, on the other hand, could fool any non-expert eye today into thinking it was a netbook right up until you tried to use it.

But, the UltraLite wasn't a netbook. A netbook, to me, has to more than small, cheap, or able to access a network. A netbook has to depend on the network. It can, of course, do work by itself, but it will only really show to advantage when it's networked.

Therefore, the first netbook has to be the so-called $100 laptop: the OLPC (One Laptop per Child). The OLPC, with its 366MHz, AMD Geode GX2-500 CPU, 128MBs of RAM and, this is the important part, 802.11g Wi-Fi networking. It's also noteworthy that today's OLPC runs XO 8.2 a Linux distribution with the Sugar interface.

While the OLPC has almost been knocked-out by one problem after another, Nicholas Negroponte, its founder, was right when he claimed credit for the netbook recently. However, as he also noted, commercial netbooks have largely been responsible for the OLPC's woes.

Be that as it may, it was thanks to the OLPC that Asus decided that just might be a market for a low-end, small, Linux-powered computer that required network connectivity to really show its stuff. The rest is history. Today, netbooks are the only growing sector of the PC market and Microsoft was forced, to Linux's detriment, to keep XP Home around and start addressing low-powered computers.

So, in short, while there were other small computers in the past, the OLPC is the one that's the real father to today's netbooks.

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