Trends in computer technology come and go, but despite the hype that often surrounds new products, the industry doesn’t often change radically. Desktops are still sold in the millions, Windows is still the most popular operating system, and Intel still dominates the market for PC processors.
Yet there is one recent trend that seems to have become the very definition of flash-in-the-pan – the netbook. After an explosive rise in 2008 and 2009, sales have stalled out. Is the tiny PC on the out for good.
The first netbooks hit the scene in 2007. Small and inexpensive, they ran older Intel processors at low clock speeds and usually came with a Linux distro instead of Windows. They were never really intended to become a big deal in established markets – they were meant instead to be affordable, portable computers for markets where larger and faster laptops were unaffordable.
But there was something cool about these tiny computers, and hype began to snowball. Intel’s Atom processor was adapted to them to provide better battery life, giving them endurance to match their portability. By 2008 it was clear that netbooks were becoming their own niche and by 2009, they’d cornered over 20% of global computers shipments. By comparison, smartphone market share didn’t exceed 20% of all mobile phone sales until the third quarter of 2010.
Underneath the good news, however, there was trouble.
Consumers Tricking Themselves
Netbooks aren’t hard to make cool. They’re portable, active devices sold on the idea that you can take them anywhere. Consumers bought netbooks during dreams of writing a novel during a flight to Cancun or sending family photos while sipping a latte at the hip new coffee shop down the street.
Reality is less glamorous, however. One NPD survey found that 60% of netbooks never actually made their way out of the home they’d be brought to. And once you’ve stripped away a netbook’s portability you’re left with a cheap but slow laptop – which may be right as the same survey found that only 27% of buyers thought their netbook performed better than expected. A somewhat less reliable report from a research firm called Biz360 found that consumers weren’t expressing satisfaction with netbooks online as aggressively as with other products.
Consumers were, in essence, tricking themselves. Yet they can hardly be blamed – according to most technology journalists, netbooks were The Next Big Thing. Even I bought a netbook, only to end up selling it about six months later.
The Tailspin Begins
And so, we come to today.
It’s certainly not hard to buy a netbook online. They’re all over Amazon, Newegg and other retailers. Step into a big-box store, however, and you’ll have a harder time. They’ve been shoved aside. Tablets now take their space on store shelves.
Dismal reports can be found all over the web. Netbook sales have fallen by 40% in Western Europe according to Gartner, while a separate MBI research study has found that tablet sales overtook netbooks in Q2 2011.
There’s nowhere to go but down. The netbook as we knew it – a small laptop with a 10” display – looks set to vanish almost entirely from mature markets over the next few years. Even emerging markets may lose their love for them thanks to the constant downward trend in mainstream laptop prices.
Netbooks may not yet be buried, but the funeral procession has begun.
Leaving A Legacy
I don’t think many people will miss netbooks. My personal love for netbooks was never great, and took a definite turn for the worse after I purchased one myself and found it to be unsatisfactory.
Yet their bad traits have been corrected in a new class of small and inexpensive ultraportables that are among the best PCs sold today. I’m talking about products like the HP dm1z and the ASUS Eee PC 1215 – laptops that are large enough and powerful enough to be truly enjoyable, but sold for well under $500.
And then we have tablets, which owe a debt of gratitude to netbooks for serving as a proof-of-concept. Remember, the “net” was there for a reason. These were supposed to be the perfect computer for people who don’t do a lot besides surf the web. They failed to fill that role, but in their failure they proved that there was demand for low-power content consumption devices. Would the iPad have arrived in 2010 if the netbook hadn’t caught on in 2008?
Netbooks may be on the outs, but that doesn’t mean they were pointless. During their short burst of glory they changed the path of consumer electronics forever. Light a candle, bow your head, and join me in a moment of silence for the netbook.