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Imagining the end of high-cost computing?

Take a look at what's happening with Atom-based Netbooks. Plus, the emergence of an intuitive free OS like Ubuntu. Then explain why you still need an expensive traditional PC at home.

For more than two decades, personal computing has been anything but inexpensive. To be sure, prices for the average computer have dropped substantially since the 1980s. But with the exception of the occasional bargain or bare-bones configuration, the price of a good computer system still takes quite a bite out of the family budget.

That iron calculation no longer applies and shoppers can now find low-end systems in the $300 range running Celeron or Sempron processors. But the more intriguing development is the emergence of Intel's Atom chip and what it might suggest about the Netbook's ability to one day replace a traditional desktop or notebook as a family's primary personal computer.

By itself, the Atom (as well the expected arrival of a similar chip from Advanced Micro Devices one of these days) probably won't be enough to compel a huge change in consumer behavior. (Though since the Eee PC's debut in late 2007, about 12 million low-cost Netbooks have been sold.)

The Atom's fortune is to arrive at a particular juncture in the history of technology and the global economy as several trends are working simultaneously to its benefit, as pointed out recently in a convincing paper by Bernstein Research's reliably excellent Toni Sacconaghi.

•  The recession: Stimulus or no stimulus, the global economy is going to need months to repair itself. Against the backdrop of growing joblessness on the rise and financial insecurity, families are looking twice and three times at discretionary purchases, like a PC.

•  Free software: Microsoft long ago lost the perception fight around open-source software. Now with the emergence of Ubuntu, the idea of Linux on the desktop isn't the pipedream it was at the start of the decade.

•  Cloud computing: Not everything will reside in the cloud but Web-based computing increasingly dominates what we do in front of the terminal. If all you need is a good data connection, there's less rationale for paying top dollar to buy a fancy computer. You don't need a top of the line machine to access YouTube.

•  Fresh technology and the "cool" factor: Admit it, we're all fashion whores when it comes to tech toys and Netbooks are a hip item these days, especially compared with the frumpy Celeron and Sempron boxes they compete against.

Ubuntu man: Mark Shuttleworth Mark Shuttleworth

I can hear the objections already. What about gamers or advanced photo editing or video encoding? Fair enough, but that still doesn't account for more than half the population of consumers for whom Atom-based systems are more than enough. Sacconaghi points to a Pew Internet & America Life Project in December, which found that "38% of adults (roughly 75% of the gaming population) reported using their desktop or notebook PCs for gaming." And while it's true that high-end hardware offers richer capabilities, the fact is that most people don't do heavy-duty photo editing or video encoding.

The wild card here is Canonical, the company which puts out Ubuntu. Until Ubuntu, there was little to the argument that mainstream computer users would load Linux onto their machines. On paper, it sounded great but it never worked out in practice. Simply put, people have lives to live and don't have the time or the inclination to immerse themselves in learning a new operating system.

But I like what Mark Shuttleworth, has done with Ubuntu since he founded Canonical in 2004. Not only is it relatively easy to use but Ubuntu is compatible with Microsoft Office. Unless I'm terribly mistaken, more developers will pick up on that over the next year. Especially if this recession-depression drags on.