Q&A: One on One with Dell Inspiron Mini 9 Product Manager

The most eagerly anticipated mini-notebook of the year has finally arrived. But who is Dell targeting exactly? What did they learn by waiting and watching as other companies tried their luck at the netbook game? And how might Dell’s Inspiron Mini line evolve? To get some answers we talked with Senior Product Line Manager John New. Among the most interesting tidbits:

  • The Inspiron Mini 9 is only the first system in Dell’s family: Dell sees the netbook category as growing and expanding to include different sizes and features.
  • We will see a mobile broadband option at some point: Dell plans to release systems with embedded mobile broadband by the end of the year, although he couldn’t confirm whether any U.S. carriers might subsidize the device.
  • Dell thinks SSDs are better than traditional hard drives in this size of netbook: Although you can get much larger hard drives from competing mini-notebook manufactuers, Dell opted for SSD to keep the size as small as possible and go with a quiet, fanless design.
  • Linux wasn’t just an afterthought: Dell spent an enormous amount of time and resources in making the interface on the Linux-based Inspiron Mini 9 as user-friendly and polished as possible. In fact, New thinks it provides a better user experience than Windows for those who haven’t had a lot of exposure to Microsoft’s OS.

Read the full interview to find out more. Where does the Inspiron Mini fit in the Dell product line? A smart phone provides a pretty good two or three minute experience. The little keyboard and small screen get a bit frustrating and tiresome. After the smart phone the customer has to then look to something a bit bigger, but the problem with something bigger is that carrying around a traditional, full function laptop isn’t what you want to do when you are wandering around for the afternoon. There is a space for a product that fits in between the three minute and the three hour usage model. It comes down to the 45 minute or 1 hour device that we see in the middle, and that is the Inspiron Mini category. We see this as a category and not just a single device. This is the first system in Dell’s mini category. Where do the strengths of the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 lie? This category of device is best when it’s connected to the Internet. Whether you are connected at a hotspot or via a wired connection, having the facility of the Internet and being able to access YouTube and the social networking sites and simply browsing the Web is the intended functionality of this product. Absolutely, you can type a letter on it and I have even given presentations on it through the VGA out. But it’s not something you are going to sit down and write your thesis paper on. Was it a strategic decision not to include a 10-inch in the line? It is a category and we are continuing to watch all the different sizes that the industry has going on. As we get into the category, we reserve the right to do more. I think the cool thing about this category is you can experiment with different sizes and low costs. You really can reach price points that you never could with a full featured notebook. There is a lot to be done in the industry here. What is the target audience of the Inspiron Mini 9? We see it hitting three primary groups. There is a natural category for youth. Both the physical size of the system and the cost makes sense for the younger family member. The size and the shape are cool; instead of a kid in the household using the family computer, this one is their very own. The second one is around teens that are doing a lot of social networking. And the third is people like ourselves; those that are using technology in our day-to-day lives. Having an option to carry something small and light may mean we can carry it to places we otherwise wouldn’t have. I think its perfect for that guy that wants to stroll up to a Starbucks and surf the Net in between meetings. Are there plans for adding mobile broadband and do you think the monthly fees need to come down? We think the mobile broadband capability speaks perfectly for this category so we defined the device with internal capabilities because to have an external dongle on a highly mobile device didn’t make much sense. The carriers are working on options. Right now the industry norm is $55 a month and that is a bit expensive for a low cost device. I think at some point we will see day passes, like you see with hotspot day passes. It is going to be a premium option for this category, however. As adoption continues to grow, hopefully we will see those prices come down. Do you see carriers subsiding the cost of the hardware? What flavor of mobile broadband options are you exploring? I can’t really speak to that, but it is our job at Dell to get the technology into our customers hands and speak to the benefits of the technology. We will announce the flavors when we announce the partners. Will it be WiMax capable? We aren’t talking to WiMax right now. Why the decision to only offer solid state drive options? We are really focusing on high mobility and we are trying to lead here with the solid state disks. Because of there are no moving parts and quiet performance they are really ideal for this type of device. We have a 4, 8 and 16 GB option, but we also have partnered with Box.Net for Internet storage. We provide an entry account with expansion options. With this type of Cloud storage you can easily share your information between your Dell Inspiron Mini and your primary device. Do you think it is a gamble since competitors are offering SSD and hard drive options? I think that the SSD for us is focused on mobility and we want to encourage the Cloud computing aspect of the product. If someone needs additional storage there are the USB ports. You can put your big music library on an external drive and we have actually made accessories available for this. With this product, we are really focused on what it does and not on speeds and specs. Will a six-cell battery be available at some point? We are seeing the provided four-cell deliver as much as four hours on some configurations. Certainly a six-cell battery is an option for the future but there aren’t plans right now. The keyboard on the Mini 9 is a bit cramped compared to other mini-notebooks. Can you explain the thought process behind the layout? We spent a lot of engineering resources and did a lot of usability studies on the keyboard design. For example, the way we relocated the function keys enabled us to expand the key size to ensure the alpha keys and the home rows were more useful. What I have found is that after 15 minutes of use your right pinky comes under control and it’s not a hard reprogram to shift over to the keyboard layout. I can touch type on it. That key placement gave us the best usability results. It is obvious Dell did a lot of work to make Linux more consumer friendly. Do you have any expectations of Linux versus Windows XP sales for the Inspiron Mini? We spent a lot of time looking at the user interface. We have logically categorized the different functions and we have chosen the best of the Web and partners to populate our Launcher bar. The benefit of that is that we can very intuitively present the things that this device does best. My hope is that the people that choose one or the other have a great experience. And for those that aren’t already familiar with Windows, I think we can provide them with an even better user experience with Linux. That said, we acknowledge that there are a large group of people who are familiar with Windows and will want that experience. Why not offer the user interface you have on the Linux machine on Windows? We have discussed it but at some point we might do something in that area. We will see how the Linux interface is accepted. How will Dell ensure that the Inspiron Mini line doesn’t cannibalize the sales of other Dell notebooks? I think consumers are very savvy and because of the size, the keyboard, the screen and the computing power and storage, they will see that this isn’t quite up to par with a full-function PC. When you combine that with an obtainable price point, I think it becomes an also and not an instead of product. What did you make of Acer Aspire one price drop last week? I think it’s a competitive product category and an evolving one. A lot of folks are looking to establish their position, but I think we have an established one with Dell. We are going to go out and be aggressive with positioning the product and we will see how it goes. Competitors are always going to do competitive things.

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  1. Glenn Says:

    While not perfect by any means this first venture into the Netbook market by Dell certainly is credible. Let’s hope they stick to the lowcost and small size model along the way, at least keeping the 9 inch as a continual option. I know how these things go. Eventually the 9 inch gets replaced by a 10 inch, then a 10.5. Then they add piles of features with a 13 inch option and soon it’s not a helluva lot different than any other laptop. Listen to your customers Dell!! Address this keyboard issue now, people don’t like it despite the fact you think you know what consumers want more than they do. Choke down the arrogance and fix the keyboard.

  2. David Says:

    Dell’s Inspiron Mini 9 looks fantastic.
    But they have to be crazy to issue this with an M$ operating system, however hobbled it claims to be. This is taking loyalty and contract obligations into the absurd.
    Any ‘Mini’ notebook cries out for Linux and nothing but. Someone in the organisation isn’t following the plot?!

  3. strider_mt2k Says:

    The Mini 9 can run just about any operating system you want.

    The only cry here is yours.

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