Ah, the netbook: the pet rock of the PC industry. As recent moves by Acer and Google (NSDQ: GOOG) show, it’s high time to bury the netbook as a fad born out of desperation rather than a true evolution of mobile computing.
Just a few years ago as PC companies confronted the abyss of the world’s worst recession since the 1920s, they realized they needed lower-priced products to avoid having sales plummet along with the stock market. They also noticed the same trend that many of us have toward mobility, with factors like weight and battery life becoming as important if not more to consumers as processing power and large screens. Thus was born the netbook: a slimmed down notebook PC running Windows XP or Windows 7 Starter with a cramped keyboard and a smaller screen, generally between 7 inches and 10 inches available for around $299 or $399.
For a while, it seemed netbooks could be a bridge to a mobile future, especially when combined with supports from wireless carriers like Verizon and AT&T (NYSE: T). But then came the iPad, which made it clear that demand for screens larger than a smartphone was going to be fulfilled by devices born of the new era of mobile. This is what Steve Jobs is talking about when he talks of a “post-PC era,” that the legacy technologies of the PC era simply can’t be crammed into smaller packages.
Ever since, netbook sales have been stagnating, even falling. And two developments this week allow us to start putting nails in the coffin. Acer, which recently dumped its CEO amid exposure to falling netbook sales, released pricing information for its new Android tablet and told investors in Taiwan that “we may not be able to get back to the golden days, as notebook plus netbook may be only able to maintain single-digit growth compared to 20 to 30 percent in the past,” according to Bloomberg. This week code surfaced that Google is also readying tablet-friendly features for Chrome OS, once pitched as an ideal Netbook companion but now increasingly labeled as a “notebook” operating system on Google’s Chrome OS product page.
There’s just not room in the computing world for a device that is a compromise in every single way except price. Smaller screens and less-than-optimal keyboards make netbooks harder to use for work and play. Windows simply wasn’t meant to run on devices that last for eight hours without huge and heavy extended batteries. The margins on netbooks are terrible.
Google has a shot at correcting many of these objections by tackling the netbook in a truly new way, but it may not matter if the world decides that the form factor is destined for a niche role. Imagine the holiday shopper in November 2011 considering their computing options: why pick the netbook? Tablets offer a more intuitive user experience at similar prices, cheap but full-sized notebooks won’t cost all that much more than the netbook (Best Buy’s Web site currently offers 70 laptops less than $600, more than any other category), and given that hardware vendors simply aren’t motivated anymore to invest in netbooks given their low margins and the emergence of the tablet in the consumer mindset, there’s not likely to be a lot of new and different things on store shelves.
Google’s hope is that corporations embrace Chrome OS netbooks as a more secure-and-reliable low-cost option for their workers, but that has always seemed like more of a sales pitch from Google than true demand that Google is poised to capture. Acer initially said upon the departure of CEO Gianfranco Lanci that it would invest “cautiously” in the mobile market, but just a week later Wang appears to have thrown caution to the wind, saying that Acer now has an “aggressive” plan to go after the tablet market.
Every industry has its fads. Google will likely try to revive interest in Netbooks when Chrome OS is finally ready, and a more sophisticated version of the CR-48 prototype Netbook could turn a few heads. But more and more, it seems like the mobile world has moved on, which could accelerate internal tension between Android and Chrome OS inside Google.