Netbooks are on the road to irrelevance

For years we the consumer have demanded bigger and faster computers and for years we’ve gotten just that. Every month a new model is released that incrementally bumps up the specs a bit and satisfies that demand. Yesterday 17″ CRT monitors were an upgrade, today a 22″ widescreen LCD is common. Of course, software doesn’t just sit still either. Each new version of software finds some way of using your new hardware to the point where the net affect is virtually zero.

Recently however consumers decided they no longer wanted faster, they no longer wanted bigger. Suddenly they wanted small, portable and cheap. Enter the netbook.

The netbook, which was recently “defined” by Microsoft if you’re willing to accept it, is a small laptop like device with a 10.2″ or smaller screen and single core processor running at 2Ghz or less. Indeed, most netbooks today are powered by a 1.6Ghz Intel Atom processor and few have more than 1GB of ram. Early models usually came with a small SSD, maybe 16GB in size. One thing they all have in common is their size. They’re small. Smaller than a laptop but larger than a smart phone.

Size, ultimately, is why the netbook is destined to fail. The problem with the netbook is precisely because it is smaller than a laptop and yet bigger than a smart phone. It wants you to believe it can provide all of the capabilities of a laptop while being as portable as a smart phone. In reality it provides neither.

In order to be smaller and cheaper than a laptop a number of compromises have to be made. The keyboard is smaller and more difficult to use than a standard size keyboard. The touchpad and associated buttons are of lesser quality. Most netbooks I’ve come into contact with have glaring quality issues like buttons that feel unforgivably cheap or difficult to push. Couple the cramped keyboard with a netbook’s general lack of power and you’ve basically got a really large smart phone without the portability.

So if the netbook is so bad why does it exist at all? The netbook was born out of a desire for a small and inexpensive device that could be used to do basic internet tasks while on the go. At the time smart phones couldn’t provide the internet experience users were really looking for so boom, an even smaller laptop! The problem for the netbook is that the iPhone changed what a smart phone was expected to be capable of. The iPhone raised the bar for what a smart phone could do as internet device. Since then numerous others have made an effort to compete with the iPhone with varying degrees of success.

So what’s the point? The point is that with the improvements in smart phones the netbook now looks like the odd man out. It isn’t truly as portable as a smart phone. The moment you want to do something the latest (good) smart phones can’t do you’ll want to be on a full sized laptop or computer.

Oddly enough, improvements in the smart phone aren’t the only reason the netbook is destined to die. In the end, the consumer will be the reason the netbook slowly goes away. The netbook will follow the same track of any car ever made. Consumers will want the next version to be bigger and better the last until it is no longer what it started out as. Eventually the netbook will simply be like any other cheap laptop and the smart phone will replace it, if it hasn’t already.


  1. I have to sadly concur with your entry. Netbooks, indeed, are just sad versions of laptops, and are still closer in size to their lappy cousins than their cooler smartphone neighbors. A netbook is just too big to allow me to thumbtype, but too small to allow me to type normally.

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