Burying the Netbook

January 4th, 2013

So in 2007, it was the year of the netbook. They were small and they were cheap, but they didn’t have a lot going for them otherwise. They keys were squished together, performance was tepid, and the screen was just too small to manage Windows effectively. I recently read a report that some of those sacrifices were made as the result of edicts by Intel and Microsoft, but the end result was something that was cheap in every respect, but what did you expect for $300 or less? Predictably, Steve Jobs pooh-poohed netbooks as “cheap PCs,” reminding everyone that “We don’t know how to make a $500 computer that’s not a piece of junk. Our DNA will not let us do that.” And of course a $599 Mac mini is not a piece of junk.

When Apple introduced the iPad in 2010, the netbook was on the way out, though it took a couple of years before two of the mainstays in that market, Acer and Asus, took the hint and phased them out. Yet there are still some tech pundits out there that claim that netbooks are only moribund, but may stage a resurgence of sorts. Or maybe not.

In the latter days, netbooks began to sport larger screens, more traditionally-sized keyboards; in essence, they became little more than cheap note-books for those on a budget.

In case you’re wondering, yes I did spend a brief amount of time on someone’s netbook once upon a time. I found the thing near useless even when just making a few routine system changes in the wireless networking setup to recognize a new router. I presented a look of disdain that the netbook’s owner couldn’t miss. Knowing she had just bought the thing, I suggested she return it, and if she wasn’t able to pay more than $300 for a computer, maybe look for something used in a more traditional form factor.

Nowadays, people buy loads of tablets, mostly iPads. Yes, the PC makers are still pushing all their note-books, but even the slim, light Ultrabooks, highly touted as a better alternative to the MacBook Air, aren’t doing so well. Yes, they seem to largely imitate the form factor of the Air with similar parts, but they just don’t have the “it” factor that makes Apple’s note-books so successful. Or maybe more and more people just aren’t so impressed by Microsoft’s OS anymore. Recent trackings of Internet traffic don’t show much of an uptake in Windows 8, but the raw figures won’t be apparent until Microsoft releases their financials for the holiday quarter.

On the Apple side of the equation, despite some skepticism about the company’s future growth prospects in recent weeks, it doesn’t seem as if the company suffered any during the past quarter. Well, that is if you can believe a preliminary estimate, from Rob Cihra of Evercore Partners, which indicates that some 50 million iPhones were sold, along with 24 million iPads. Of those, 10 million were iPad minis, despite the fact that Apple’s smaller tablet was essentially back ordered through the quarter. However, the same estimate suggests a minor dip in Mac sales, about 3%, due to the lack of availability of the new iMac. That is to be expected, and the flat sales will still stand in sharp contrast to PC land, where sales likely dipped to a reasonable degree. This despite the arrival of Windows 8, and lots of hopes and dreams on the part of PC makers and, of course, Microsoft.

Of course, you’ll hear lots and lots of spin from PC companies and Microsoft as to what’s really going on. It’s not as if they will admit that their concepts of the future of the PC industry and the right products is necessarily the right ones. Microsoft still believes in the 1990’s vision of Windows everywhere, that we must run the same OS, more or less, on a tablet as on a traditional desktop computer. And the smartphone interface should also be extremely similar, at least insofar as the tiled interface is concerned.

In other words, not dissimilar to the Zune music player.

Certainly I don’t think it would be good for the industry for Microsoft to fail. Microsoft made a huge sea change in Windows 8, and even if the results aren’t what people might accept, the company showed a big amount of courage in throwing out the traditional Windows user interface, even though it’s still there in a separate environment.

In any case, while you will continue to hear a few people moan about the loss of netbooks, I hardly think there are really that many people who bought them other than to save money, and because they wanted something compact. It’s not that they were terribly usable as note-books, and you wonder what sort of mindset was involved in their creation, other than to make something as cheaply as possible with no indication that people would continue to buy them after the initial flurry of sales were over and done with.

The real question for 2013 is how will those “other” tablets continue to fare against the iPad. It appears the Amazon Kindle Fire might have done decently, but Amazon hasn’t revealed actual unit sales. But that won’t stop some industry analysts from making up their own numbers.

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