Computing Applications

Who Needs a Netbook?

Geeky Ventures Founder Greg Linden


As recently as a year ago, the hype was still behind netbooks.  The Washington Post breathlessly declared netbooks to be the "bright spot for this industry" and that "sales are expected to be strong again in 2010."
Now, only a year later, The New York Times reports that sales of netbooks have stalled.  What happened?
Netbooks are cheap, underpowered devices with a small screen and cramped keyboard. As such, netbooks have always existed in a niche that was about to close.
There appear to be two types of device people want.  One is a small, portable, pocketable device that can be used for light use, mostly entertainment and quick communication.  The other is a device for work focused on enhancing productivity, a device that is easy to type on and easy to read.
The reason these two devices cannot be merged is the input/output problem.  There is no easy way to build a small portable device that is easy to type on and easy to read.  The screen is just too small, the keypads cramped.  There are clever innovations — virtual keyboards projected on to surfaces ([1]), using the back of the smartphone to expand the input surface (e.g. [2] [3]), retinal displays that create massive screens floating in front of you by drawing with a laser directly on the back of your eye ([4]), and speech input/output (e.g. [5]) — but these are not mainstream nor likely to become so any time soon.  For now, we need two devices.
Netbooks live in an uncomfortable niche.  With their small screens and cramped keyboards, typing on the device is hard and reading on them is unpleasant, and they remain too large to fit in a pocket.  They are also badly underpowered, closer to a smartphone in computing power than a laptop.  Their main appeal has always been that they were cheap.
Now, smartphones are about the same price as a netbook, and small, light, long battery life laptops are available for $600 or less.  The netbook niche is gone.  The main appeal of the awkward compromise of netbooks was the price, and that advantage has now mostly closed.  The niche has vanished almost as soon as it was created.
Rather than mourn the loss of netbooks, we should celebrate what lead to their demise.  An iPhone is an amazing device, about equivalent in computing power to the Power Mac G4 of only ten years ago, sitting in the palm of our hands.  Small, light, and long battery life laptops used to cost more than $2000; now they are available for $600.  The end of netbooks is from the strength of smartphones and laptops.  That the niche closed is only a good thing for all of us.
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy one of my previous blog@CACM posts, "How Many Computers Will You Own?"


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