Dave Michels On The Demise Of Netbooks

Self-proclaimed telecom Blogalyst and all-around great guy Dave Michels recently posted some interesting observations about Microsoft, the sorry state of the PC industry and the demise of the netbook category. As someone who has counted a couple of netbooks as important tools in my arsenal I’ve been pondering his assertions. While I agree with many of his observations, I’m not so certain that I draw the same conclusions. Netbooks were doomed to be transitional items from the start.

Dave is correct that Microsoft took a dim view of netbooks, offering only Windows XP Home at a price point that would permit them to retail in the $200-300 range, at least initially. Recall that the entire category was started by the Asus Eee PC. That device offered a 7.0” display, Intel Celeron CPU,  512 MB of memory and 8 GB of flash storage and sold for $199. That device tapped Linux to keep the price down and the performance acceptable.

One of the innovative aspects of the early netbooks was the use of flash-based storage. This was before SSDs were commonplace. It was a great way to eek some performance from otherwise pokey hardware.

The category evolved quite quickly, with most netbooks offering traditional hard drives for storage and displays in the 9-10” range. Most were based upon Intel’s Atom CPU family. At their peak they sold in the range of $350-500.  Only the occasional model reached beyond those prices.

Where Microsoft really struck a blow was limiting the netbook edition of Windows XP Home to use only 1 GB of memory. My first netbook, the HP Mini 2140, was hobbled in this manner.

It’s other serious limitation was the display resolution. For a long time netbooks only managed displays running at 1024 x 600 pixels. Quite frankly, that’s too limited in the vertical axis, even for common web browsing.

Twins of a sort: HP Mini 5102 (left) vs HP Mini 2140 (right)

The 10” netbook form factor was compelling for certain use cases, and there were a few models aimed to business use. My second netbook, a HP Mini5102 was one of those models. It was ideal for the frequent flier. It was small enough to be useful in a coach class airplane seat and the extended-life battery lasted a full five hours.

However, to make that model truly useful carried considerable cost. It had 2 GB of memory, ran Windows 7 Pro and had a 1376 x 768 pixel “HD” display. These features made it much more useful, but ran the price up over $700. Slightly lesser variants were offered around $400. At those prices over time it was eventually competing with more capable low-end laptops. Only its minute form factor giving it unique appeal.

Dave suggests that there were netbooks with displays in the 12-15” range. In my view these are not netbooks at all. Netbooks were generally considered to have 7-10” displays, maybe 11” if you’re feeling generous. Anything bigger is really laptop. Anything with a full-sized keyboard is definitely a laptop.

Therein lie the rub. Netbooks were inherently limited from the start. The Atom CPU was just too slow. The displays were too small. The keyboards were cramped. They were in fact an exercise in deliberately limited systems. They were to be cheap and small above all else.

All the while new competitors encroached upon their turf. Laptops kept getting more capable and cheaper. A 12” laptop is better than any netbook in most ways. These days $350-400 buys a decent consumer laptop, without all of the compromises that were the hallmark of the netbook class.

And then came the upstart tablets, initially lead by the iPad, later joined by various Android devices. While more suited to media consumption that creative chores, tablets found wide acceptance even though they often cost more than a netbook. Their new form factor trumped even the wee netbooks.

Ultimately, netbooks were simply outclassed by tablets and low-end laptops. A change in OS was not going to extend the life of the category in any appreciable way.  The very small form factor was only compelling to niche users.  The window of opportunity for the netbook was small, and now it’s simply gone.

  • Always love your insights and opinions, even when they are wrong. Though you did fill in some holes I left in my post.

    I only bought one Netbook, it was a Linux Eee PC. I saw its tremendous value as a cloud device, but its tiny screen was infuriating. I recall trying to edit a Google Doc, and with all the menu’s and crap on top, I could only display a few lines of my text in the editor. I thought Linux wouldn’t matter in a browser. But Linux was very limiting. I used the USB to charge my iPod once and the Linux app did something to the iPod to reformat it. I wanted the comfort of Windows.

    I concluded the concept was a great – a thin client notebook for cloud services, but it needed a larger screen and a a runtime version of Windows. Several new models were coming out to meet that description, but I opted to wait for Win 7. Thus I never got another Netbook.

    The vendors had planned to sell them, but MS prevented that reality. Ironically, it is almost exactly what Google is delivering with the Chromebooks. A thin client notebook suited for the cloud. The market is still there, though Apple and Google are serving it quite well.

    My point was that Apple and Google are really only delivering what Microsoft could have dominated, but they didn’t understand the disruption that was occurring. The modern iPad is a far cry from the 2009 Netbook – but had the Netbook been able to continue its sales and evolution – I suspect the gap would be much smaller – esp compared to the Chromebook.

    • mjgraves

      I suppose that a certain aspect of this is semantic. I believe that by definition a netbook has a small display, certainly not greater than 11″. Anything more makes it a laptop, perhaps a pokey, cheap laptop…but a laptop nonetheless.

      If you’r only netbook experience was the Eee PC then you felt the worst of it. In contrast, by HP 5102 was the best possible genuine netbook experience…largely on the display resolution and the quality of the keyboard.

      I do agree that once they went into Windows XP Home and traditionally installed applications, the “net” aspect of the netbook was diminished. This is where the Chromebooks took up the torch.

      OTOH, tablets, whether iPad, Android or Windows RT are driving an “appification” that I find disturbing. Have you ever tried to write a blog post in the WordPress app for iOS or Android? It’s a terrible experience. Windows Live Writer is vastly superior. There may well be an app for that, whatever “that” might be in any instance, but that says nothing about the app being any good.