It’s Too Soon to Count Out Netbooks

MSI Wind U160; image via MSI.

Three years ago, Bill Gates looked like a dummy for carrying around a tablet. Steve Jobs was ragging on netbooks and tablets when he was rolling out the MacBook Air. Now, eight months post-iPad, everybody’s pushing out tablets, and netbooks are looking very 2007. But any death notices anyone puts out for the netbook are premature.

Let’s check the numbers. One of the big research reports thrown around is from Forrester Research, which predicts that tablets will outsell netbooks by 2012, pass netbooks in total usage by 2014, and have a 23% share of all PCs (a category that for Forrester includes everything from a tablet on up) by 2015. By 2015, Forrester predicts, netbooks will only have 17 percent of the PC market, just behind desktops with 18 percent.

Wait a minute — 17 percent of all computers in 2015 will be netbooks? About as many netbooks as desktops? And the whole personal computing pie is going to continue to grow? Maybe this is silly, but — isn’t that still really, really good?

The tablet has mindshare, but not yet market share. Netbooks are already starting to strap on the powerful new dual-core mobile processors that will give them full computing parity with notebooks. And the two innovations of netbooks, small screens and small hard drives, have already come uncoupled — you have lightweight, large-screen/low-storage devices like the MacBook Air or Samsung N150 and compact, high-powered netbooks like the 250GB MSI Wind U160. They’re all getting better at managing battery life, too, which remains the real bane of all portable computers, netbook and tablet alike.

Part of the problem has been the unrealistic expectations manufactuers and analysts had for netbooks three years ago. It was foolish to think that everybody and their cousin would buy a netbook and that other lightweight form factors like the tablet (which, people forget, had already been kicking around for a while) wasn’t going to jump up and take a chunk. If you look at projected numbers five years out and assume that all of the form factors are going to look and function the same way they do now, that’s foolish too.

At CNET, Erica Ogg asks “So, Who’s Still Buying Netbooks?” Tech/culture blogger Joanne McNeil had already written a terrific post answering the question, “Why I Got a Netbook Instead of an iPad.” JoAnne bought a $300 off-the-shelf Asus, took it to Asia for the summer, and loved it.

First, there’s a cost difference: “the price difference wasn’t simply $200. The iPad required accessories — the case, the bluetooth keyboard, the SD adapter — the total price would hoover just under what I spent the year before on my new laptop.” Finally, there’s that keyboard, which some people hate and others need:

As a non-dude with narrow fingers, the keyboard feels right to me [Maybe the Macbook’s wide keyboard, like the name iPad and their translucent staircases (Skirts! Steve Jobs! Women wear skirts!) is another example of Apple’s failed outreach to women in market research.]

The computer industry — and maybe even more so, the marketers who work for it and the media who cover it — is always looking for products that scale: something that can be put as-is into everyone’s hands. Netbooks don’t have to be that thing any more. They can be quirky, eccentric — just right for one user and for her alone.

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