Problems for netbooks in the future?

They’ve come a long way baby. From being a nascent product just 2 years ago, pundits are now saying that netbooks will make up 20% of all PC sales in 2010. Consider that netbook sales have grown by 103% in 2009 (Source: DisplaySearch). That’s super-impressive. There’s a “but” involved in this post though. I’ve tried to look out into the future and see what it holds for netbooks, and there seem to be a few grey clouds hovering on the horizon.

Me-Too Me-Too!

The netbook market is saturated. Ever since ASUS pushed the idea of a mini stripped down laptop,  Every reputed computer company now has at least one model of netbook on the market. Many companies have been setup specifically to take advantage of the netbook boom and players who had nothing to do with mobile computing (Nokia, Google, Marks & Spencer!) are in different stages of netbook manufacture. What we have now is completely generic products in a market that already has generic-ish limitations on it (Microsoft and Intel restrictions on things like price, memory and chipsets). Most every netbook has the same CPU, same graphics, same memory and same storage.

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Smartbooks, Tablets & Ultrathins

Netbooks were a unique proposition when released in that they were the first truly portable devices that allowed consumers to do a bunch of things that they most want to do – check email, basic browsing, listening to music (off headphones or travel speakers), print stuff off, and so on. But now there’s the smartbook which will double up as a smartphone and netbook, there’s the apple mystery device, there are ultrathins such as the ASUS UL30 that feature many of the advantages and solve a lot of disadvantages of netbooks, and who knows what else waiting in the wings.

Price Points of laptops

Netbooks WERE (yes, that’s the operative word) a much cheaper option. Now however, I can go out and get a 4GB DDR3 RAM, 2.2GHz Intel SU4100 (HP Pavilion DV6) for $600, or a dumbed down 15.6 inch Compaq Presario CQ61 for $386!! The computing power of laptops is growing by leaps and bounds (whereas netbooks are restricted) and the prices are dropping. A large part of netbooks charm was their portability, battery life and price. People may still buy netbooks, but the decision will become more difficult unless their specifications improve drastically.

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But the grey clouds have Silver Linings too!

  • Netbook specifications have been kept artificially depressed, and lifting these will mean better performing devices at the same price point. Of course, then the only reason to buy a laptop is the screen size.
  • Most people only use computers to tweet, facebook, check email, watch youtube….all things that don’t require much of the hardware filip provided by non-netbooks. If people realize this and buy specifically to their requirements, netbooks will still do well.
  • They are in that sweet spot of not too big (heavy, need to be lugged around, don’t fit in your handbag laptops) and not too small (I can’t see the damn screen!). While the innards may change, the 8-11 inch screen size shouldn’t.

While netbooks have been prolific until today, there are going to be some hiccups for them in the future. How they deal with these will be interesting to watch.


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