What’s next for netbooks?

Samsung's new netbook aims to build on the success of the NC10

Samsung's new netbook aims to build on the success of the NC10

In the run up to Christmas 2008 netbooks were being sold as a cheap entry-level computer for young kids and students alike. Just twelve months later the device-type has grown into a market of its own with a product range and customer base as varied as its more feature-laden sibling; the notebook.

Taiwanese manufacturer Asus is widely credited with launching the world’s first netbook in late 2007 with its ground-breaking EeePC. The 7in computer shipped with just 512MB of RAM, a 900MHz processor and just 4GB of hard disk space but was an immediate success the world over due to its extremely low price and ultra-portable form factor.

The machine was flawed in many ways, not least because its tiny size meant it was almost too small for many users, but it was not long before other manufacturers like Acer moved into the same space to compete. At that early stage these machines were being pitched as low-cost student laptops as well as ‘my first PC’-type devices for children who were starting to get web-aware.

What a difference a year has made.

“The netbook market has changed; Asus really started the market but the products were much lower-grade in terms of their power, small flash hard drives and screen quality,” says Paul Toland, IT manager for Samsung Ireland. “Now netbooks are a real product and the specs have increased significantly on them.”

As the trend has grown into a fully-fledged market the power of the machines has done likewise. 1GB of RAM, a 1.6GHz processor, 160GB+ of storage and a 10in screen are all standard fare when it comes to the latest netbooks.

While ever-increasing specs is a natural part of the computer industry as a whole these very rapid changes to the netbook concept are driven by other forces too. For a start the likes of students sought out larger hard drives to store files and more powerful processors to increase the amount of tasks their machine could handle at one time. However in addition to this a relatively unexpected breed of consumer has also taken an interest in the device-type:

“[The netbook] is still a suitable product for young kids and for students but now it’s taken on a whole new leaf where business-people are taking them on as a second device which they bring with them for portability, specifically when used with mobile broadband,” says Mr. Toland. “You’ll see that if you’re at the airport – you’ll see people sitting in the boarding area in suits take netbooks out and work on them while they’re waiting for a flight.”

Mr Toland says these users already have a powerful machine at home – and perhaps another one in the office too – but see the appeal in something that is neat and handy when it comes to working on-the-go.

Samsung has been very successful in exploiting the niche found in netbooks recently, despite being one of the last manufacturers to enter the market. Its first netbook, the NC10, did not hit shelves until late 2008 and was not properly available in Ireland until earlier this year. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – the machine has proved to be a massive hit.

“We was quite late to launch netbook so what we did was look at where there were some flaws in the products in the market and we addressed them,” says Mr Toland. “That’s why by January Samsung netbook was number one in the UK and has retained that every month bar one.”

The three things the NC10 did that set it apart from the competitors at the time was its nearly full-sized keyboard, its strong battery and its sleek look. Up until that point most netbooks came with very small and awkward keys, while the amount of time given by their small batteries left a lot to be desired.

Of course it was not long before the competition caught up and such apparent luxuries are now bare essentials in the netbook space. So what must a company do to keep on the cutting edge and it is just as simple as continually ramping up the likes of processor power?

“The Atom [processor] has been standard and hasn’t changed because it hasn’t had to, says Mr. Toland. “At the moment there isn’t a need to have a bigger specification – the thing is if you increase the spec you’ll probably increase the weight of the product, it’s also going to increase the price of the product.”

However consumers can still expect big changes in the netbook market over the next year, ones that may be even more significant than the ones that have occoured in the past twelve months.

For a start Windows 7 is due at the end of the month and its ‘Starter’ edition is specifically designed for netbooks – an attempt by Microsoft to put its XP platform to sleep once and for all and a sign that the big software players are treating the device-type seriously.

As computer components get cheaper, lighter and smaller they will make their way into netbooks without compromising the core appeal of the platform too. And while some upgrades – like larger screens – may be counter-productive to the ethos of the netbook others like longer battery life are always going to be welcome. Samsung’s new N140, for example, boasts 11 hours of power from its battery – a far cry for the 2 hours or less promised by many just a year and a half ago.

Perhaps the best news for the customer, however, is that we are going to see the competition for innovation in netbooks get even fiercer with every company vying for dominance of a booming market.

“It’s very important to stay at the cutting edge but it is becoming harder and harder to differentiate ourselves from some of our competitors,” says Mr Toland. “What we’re doing now is building a pedigree in our brand that ensures people come back to us based on a good experience in the past.”

An edited version of this feature was published in the November issue of Business & Finance magazine.

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