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Stick a fork in netbooks, they’re done

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After beginning in late 2007, the age of netbooks is coming to close. Acer and Asus, the two remaining top-tier manufacturers of the small laptops, are ceasing netbook production today, reports The Guardian’s Charles Arthur. For a computing market that appeared to have unstoppable growth early on, the rise and fall of netbooks happened quickly. It should remind us that disruptive new technologies can quickly erode a product’s market share, and even, the viability of a product class itself.

An example of this change can be seen in one of my most-read posts ever here on GigaOM. Out of more than 7,500 posts I’ve written, one of my most viewed is “A quick guide to netbooks” from September 2008. No matter what news was hitting the tech cycle, this post on netbooks kept finding its way in front of readers who searched for netbook information on the web. Even a year after publication, the post was appearing on a daily basis near the top of our stats. Then 2010 arrived, and with it, the first credible consumer tablet in Apple’s iPad(s aapl).

Charles Arthur provides four reasons for the netbook’s demise, but by analyzing the stats of my netbook guide post, I suggest that the revamped tablet market was the beginning of the end for netbooks. True, these are completely different products in terms of form factor, design, operating systems and supported applications. But both share an important commonality: relatively inexpensive mobile computing devices.

Let’s face it: There are only a few reasons that netbooks even became a “thing.” You could get one for between $200 and $400, you could run the apps you wanted to, and you could take them everywhere. The idea of a small, cheap laptop that ran all the same software your larger notebook or desktop could run was appealing at a time when the global economy began a huge downturn. The timing of netbooks was simply right.

smartbookI know because I bought the very first one available  in 2007 and used it to cover the Consumer Electronics Show in 2008: All of my posts were written on a small Asus Eee PC. I later upgraded to an MSI Wind machine and then a $399 Toshiba model in 2009. For half the cost of a full-sized laptop, I had something more portable that lasted longer on a single battery charge.

The idea of a netbook then morphed into a smartbook: A small laptop that ran not on Intel(s intc) chips, but ARM(s armh) chips used in smartphones. The concept was great, but with Apple’s iPad introduction in 2010, I immediately suggested that smartbooks were DOA; a point that Qualcomm(s qcom) confirmed nine months later.

Some current netbook owners will continue to cling to their device, mainly because it meets their needs of Microsoft Windows(s msft) applications in a small laptop, and that’s fine: One should always use the best tool for the task at hand.

Our tasks, in terms of computing needs, however, have changed. Legacy application suites are getting replaced by a seemingly never-ending stream of smartphone and tablet applications. Cloud services for productivity and storage are the new Microsoft Office and hard drive. Touch computing is becoming the norm, not the exception, and mobile operating systems are optimized for it. Simply put: Netbooks are just another example of old-school computing and world is moving on. Farewell netbooks; it was fun while it lasted.

Acer C7 ChromebookI’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Google’s(s goog) Chromebook initiative as it can appear on the surface that the company is continuing to offer a netbook experience: Low-cost, small laptops that run for hours at a time. There’s one key difference, however: The entire interface is a modern desktop browser that works as a jack-of-all-trades for creating and consuming web content. Best of all, the simplicity of the software brings all the benefits of the web without the distractions, upkeep or power-consuming features brought by a legacy desktop environment.

That doesn’t mean I think Chromebooks will take over the world as netbooks were expected to do, but the different software approach and deep integration with Google services give Chromebooks a chance to survive beyond the age of netbooks.

15 Responses to “Stick a fork in netbooks, they’re done”

  1. I too was saddened by the demise of netbooks in 2012, but I feel the blame is more on Intel and MS for their restrictions crippling the platform. My benchmarks prove even a N570 can match a Core 2 Duo on certain tasks. Factor in as well that Intel stalled both Pine Trail and Cedar Trail for months – right at the time when netbooks were at their peak. Combine all that with the iPad release, and you have a recipe for a product segment failure.

    The funny thing is though that netbooks still continue to garner a niche audience. Despite being more than a year since I wrote about it, my article on 101 things you can do with a netbook continues to be at the number 1 spot in my site’s rankings:

    And even if 10″ form-factors die off, 11.6″ models continue to thrive. 12″ notebooks have always been a lucrative market, especially within the enterprise.

  2. Netbooks will go away when the need for fast and accurate text input goes away. I see iPads out there with Bluetooth keyboards, and I laugh. Not only do you now have two different pieces of equipment, you have put them into either two separate protective covers. Of course, you could put them into one clamshell-like cover which makes them into … a netbook.

    The Chromebook isn’t an anomaly.

  3. Brb Robertson

    The latest netbooks are hardly underpowered. The Intel N2600 SOC appears to Windows/Linux OS as if a quad-core 1.6GHz processor (dual-core with 2x hyperthreads per core, but physically set to appear as four cores) with a decent 3650 GPU, and hardware HDMI decoding for Flash/H264/Divx.

    The netbook format is handicapped by the Microsoft screen limitations, and the Intel memory limitations, but provided they run Windows OS the majority of users learned to live with the limitations. Fortunately, because of auto-sizing of screen views on the Internet to accomodate smart-phones, the screen limitation is not a problem that’s getting worse on the Internet.

    With WiFi/n netbooks are particularly good as ersatz TVs, for IPTV/PVR – and maybe that is particular to the UK because of the BBC’s excellent service. But why would I want to hold a tablet for video viewing when the netbook sits on the arm of my chair etc without me having to hold it.

  4. EricLKlein

    Still awaiting a proper tablet that has full MS Office (and Endnote) support that can easily be connected to a VGA projector (as found at most conferences).

    No product that I have seen on the market can support these requirements yet

  5. In a sense it’s kind of sad. The little secret I discovered about contemporary netbooks is that they are actually the best choice for a portable “normal” business laptop since they have the same power of a business machine that is about 6 years old meaning you can do everything you need for about $300!! Obviously if you are into watching high definition movies and other CPU intensive activities, then you need something more powerful but that is not what most of us do during the normal course of business. My Acer has proven to be one of the best work computers I have ever owned! It’s a secret discovered by accident. The PC industry almost shot themselves in the foot if everyone else, or at least everyone in the corporate world, had discovered this. Companies could have saved themselves a fortune. My two cents!!

  6. steve job’s introduction of the iPad says it all. for a new product to merit existing, it has to do something totally new. the way you can just grab the internet with your hands with the ipad, the way you can carry it around easily and have conference calls or watch video or play games portably on a rather large screen, are completely new (just try carrying a laptop around and holding it in one hand). and so, again, jobs was proven right in that he understood that the ipad was not just the oversized ipod touch people were calling it at first.

    in that same speech, jobs laughed off the netbooks that he was about to kill. “it’s just a cheap notebook.”

  7. I really wish they wouldn’t have become popular, because they basically destroyed the market for the Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC), a hand-held PC about the size of… well, my Galaxy Note 2, Nexus 7, iPad mini… Just about any of the new “bigger is better” phones that have come out in the past few months.

    People didn’t know about UMPCs, or if they did, didn’t “get it” at the time. A netbook looked like what they were used to, only smaller.

  8. I had an Asus EEE netbook when they first came out. I found it very useful – but I have to say that tablets fill the ‘casual internet’ niche better. The EEE was replaced more than a year ago with an Android tablet.

  9. Vadertime

    Good riddance. Most netbooks were underpowered, contained smaller keyboards than laptops and often failed to deliver the goods as promised. I never was convinced that netbooks were the answer to portability or power needs. For consumption of internet services, the tablet is second to none. For productivity, one still can’t beat a full-featured laptop despite the shortcomings in the power demand area. At some point the tablet will be able to do everything that a laptop can, but it hasn’t gotten there, yet.