Opinion: There's No Such Thing As a Netbook

By Mike Elgan

August 20, 2009

Some are proclaiming that the netbook is dead, but Mike Elgan says, it never even existed.

2008 was the "Year of the Netbook." It's only 2009, and already pundits are pronouncing the nebook dead.

Last year, netbooks were the hottest topic in tech. Today, new netbook introductions are met with a resounding yawn. Nobody cares about netbooks anymore. But is the netbook really "dead"?

The truth is that the netbook never really existed. I'm sorry, but it's true. There's no such thing as a netbook.

The Netbook mirage

Pundits (not me--those other pundits) will tell you that a combination of small size, low price, weak processor, and non-standard operating system conspire to differentiate a netbook from a laptop.

That seemed to make sense back in late 2007. The first ASUS Eee PC defined this new genre of mobile computer. The screen and keyboard was way too small. The price was shockingly low. The processor was a puny Celeron chip. And it ran a special version of Linux, which featured giant icons and other semi-user friendly features.

But now that the whole netbook thing has played out, we can see that none of those elements differentiates. The truth is that netbooks are nothing more than tiny laptops.

Yes, they're small. They're about the same size as the HP OmniBook 300 I bought 15 years ago. Tiny screens and cramped keyboards are nothing new.

Yes, they're cheap. But they were only slightly ahead of the Moore's Law pricing trajectory that normal-sized laptops were on. Now you can buy 15- or 17-inch laptops for less than $450. Sure, you can buy a netbook for less than that, but you can also buy one for more. Pricing overlaps. Netbook and laptop pricing is a matter of degree, not kind.

Let's be honest. Cheapness was the single factor that jolted the so-called netbook category into the stratosphere. If full-sized laptops were as cheap in late 2007 and early 2008 as they are today, laptops would have sold just as well--or better.

The idea that low-powered microprocessors are something new is a bad joke. Processors get more powerful with each new generation. Using slow chips does not a paradigm shift make. Yes, I know that the Intel Atom family is new and sophisticated. So what? It's an x86 processor designed to run exactly the same operating systems and applications as most other x86 processors.

And the special version of Linux? Ha! That was discarded by the masses as soon as Microsoft started playing ball on Windows XP pricing and availability.

Netbooks started out feeling kinda sorta different. But over time, they've gravitated toward laptop normalcy. Their screen sizes are getting bigger. Their OS changed from custom Linux to standard XP. Their processors are getting more powerful. And meanwhile, the price of laptops is dropping to meet netbook prices.

The difference between a netbook and a laptop is purely size and marketing mumbo jumbo.

Besides, the categorization of electronic devices is always based on usage models, not specs. People use netbooks just like they use laptops (albeit with unusual discomfort).

The netbook is, was and will always be a marketing mirage conjured up to drive sales.

The good news is that the true netbook concept--the device the marketers told us netbooks were supposed to be--is still in our future.

As in next year.

The real "netbook" is called a "smartbook"

The original category label for what we now call the netbook was the ultraportable. The marketing geniuses didn't like that word because it implied (accurately) that a netbook was just a small laptop, and therefore nothing new.

So they changed it to "netbook" to suggest a new usage model. The idea was that you would use your laptop for desktop, PC-like computing tasks, but use your netbook for doing cloud-based tasks. You needed both.

Now that the word "netbook" has been squandered on tiny laptops, it's no longer available for the coming generation of devices accurately described by the label. So the category label has become "smartbook."

Get used to it. A year from now, everybody will be talking about smartbooks, and nobody will even remember the n-word.

Unlike the netbook, which is built on an x86 architecture, the first wave of smartbooks will run on the embedded ARM architecture, which is associated these days not with PCs, but with cell phones, GPS gadgets, handheld gaming systems, and so on.

The chips will have built-in mobile broadband and Wi-Fi support, as well as extras like GPS and HD video support. That makes the devices smaller, lighter, and cheaper because all that electronics is baked right into the chip itself.

Smartbooks will start out with 9- and 10-inch screens, like the initial wave of netbooks did. However, instead of big-computer operating systems crammed into smaller screens, smartbooks will have smaller-device OSes displayed on bigger screens (bigger than the cell phone screens they were initially designed for). These include Google's Android, as well as Windows CE, Linux, and others.

In other words, the trend is for small laptops that stand somewhere between PCs and cell phones to shift from PC OSes and chipsets to cell phone OSes and chipsets. The payoff for consumers is better battery life (how does ten hours grab you?), lower price, and user interfaces and applications designed for mobility and constant connectivity (like cell phones are).

Taiwan-based Digitimes reports that a wide range of ARM- and Android-based smartbooks are being ordered, prepped and manufactured for shipment in the fourth quarter of this year. (I think summer next year is more likely for the majority of these devices.)

They'll come from several little-known Asian companies (just like ASUS was largely unknown to consumers in 2007) such as Inventec, and also bigger names, including Acer. Eventually, I suspect, all the major netbook makers, including HP and Dell, will get into the smartbook racket, as well.

The important point here is that, unlike the netbook, the usage model for smartbooks will be actually different from the laptop model. Rather than squeezing desktop Windows apps onto a tiny system that feels cramped, you'll visit a cell phone-like app store and download cheap widgets that feel spacious, even on a tiny, 9-inch screen.

Smartbooks will be instant on, quickly or always connected, and the applications will favor browser-based, cloudy usage models (unlike the netbook, where network centricity was a load of hooey).

Hardware manufacturers will be super motivated to make them, too, because the margins will be higher. With netbooks, pitted in a lowest-price-wins competitive environment, the margins are constantly pushed towards zero. But because smartbooks will be sold like cell phones rather than laptops, the margins are all in the carrier deals. They'll be selling subsidized smartbooks at the carrier stores for less than $200.

Maybe they'll even give 'em away. But carriers will make a fortune on the required two-year contract, and cut OEMs in on the deal.

Who will dominate?

One of the most interesting aspects of all this is that both Windows CE (i.e. Windows Mobile) and Android have always been better suited to a laptop-type device than a cell phone.

I think Microsoft might finally have an opportunity to succeed in the coming smartbook market for corporate and business customers. Google's network centricity and open flexibility will lead to some very interesting devices in the smartbook space. Microsoft and Google will likely emerge as leaders in the coming smartbook space.

But the dominant leader in the market will be--wait for it--Apple! Yeah, I said it! I'm predicting that the coming (rumored) Apple Tablet will be crowned Queen of the Smartbooks. It will probably run something that is or works like the iPhone OS, and it will probably run applications from the iTunes app store--or something like it. It will probably offer the full compliment of smartbook attributes: ARM-based, instant-on, cell phone apps, and cloud-centrism.

When smartbooks go mainstream, everyone will wonder: Why did they call those tiny laptops "netbooks"?

Good question.

Article courtesy of Datamation.



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