Opinion: Where next for the netbook?

The Asus EeePC 700. The original, not the best.

Having shown potential to be the next step in mobile computing the netbook now appears to have been a mere stop-gap. Adam Maguire wonders where does the device-type go from here or whether it is destined to decline.

When the Asus EeePC first appeared it was a revelation. The idea of having a functional laptop with the footprint of a small book – and the price-tag of a mid-market phone – was appealing for so many reasons.

Of course the original EeePC; with its 7″ screen, minuscule keyboard and 2GB hard drive, was less than perfect. It was, however, ideal for a number of niches and soon developed in a far more practical piece of hardware.

Pretty quickly the netbook grew into a device with appeal far wider than Asus and other manufacturers anticipated. Not only was it good for brief bursts of browsing or as a starter PC for a child, it also suited travelling businessmen as a secondary device and students as a college computer.

Within a year the market segment reached maturity and – thanks to the simultaneous growth of the 3G broadband market – it became far more than the almost throw-away device Asus originally designed.

It was at this time, however, that the netbook began to lose the run of itself.

Originally intended to be small, light and cheap netbook makers began on a path of escalation as they tried to out-do each other. Hard drives were suddenly as big as 250GB, screen sizes began to creep above the 10″ sweet-spot and RAM size began to grow too. All of this put more demand on the battery – which needed to offer at least 3 hours to keep the ‘portable’ selling point in tact. Pretty quickly netbooks were far less light and compact than they once were.

Most importantly, however, their price tags crept up from sub-€200 to over €400. In some cases netbooks became more expensive than more powerful – although far bulkier – laptops.

Then came the iPad.

Much like the netbook this device is light, portable and offers (near) full internet connectivity. It is also far more stylish – and expensive – but it is the mark of what trend is to come next in the world of portable computing. While the netbook began life as a toy and developed into something more serious the iPad has come out of the traps as an item of desire, one that people will pay a premium to own.

It is only a matter of time before there is a quality office suite for the iPad and it becomes a logical secondary device for business users and students. It is only a matter of time before rivals become available too, offering more functions at a lower cost.

Can the netbook compete? Not really, especially not against a far more stylish and functional device that can do everything it can. At present the only thing the netbook really has over the iPad is its USB inputs, an advantage that will end sooner or later.

So is this the end of the road for the netbook? If so, it should hold its head high.

For a device with such a short life span it has had a huge impact on computing. All manufacturers – with the exception of Apple – rushed to try to compete on the new battlefield and companies like Asus and Samsung made a fortune from it.

It also extended the lifespan of Windows XP at a time when Microsoft were desperately trying to migrate users over to Vista. In the end Microsoft gave up trying, instead developing a netbook iteration of its latest OS (Windows 7 Starter Edition) to try to kill XP with kindness.

Besides that it also introduced a lot of normal users to Linux and other open source software for the first time, something that all the fanboys in the world had failed to do.

Perhaps most importantly, however, it has accelerated the move away from optical media, forcing companies to offer digital downloads and USB-based versions of software. This arguably has made it easier for netbook haters like Apple to push forward disc-less products of its own, namely the Macbook Air and even the iPad.

However the netbook may still escape death, but only if manufacturers are willing to take it back to its roots.

As regular laptops continue to get cheaper and tablet devices take over the portable professional niche there will still be a need for that simple, almost throw-away device.

It will have to be cheap, small and have plenty of battery life but it will also have to be stream-lined and simple to use. What the netbook needs to do is almost embrace its ‘toy’ image and be proud of being a machine for the young and computer illiterate.

This type of netbook may also still be of appeal to students, but it needs to forget about the professional user once and for all. They are going and will soon be gone.

If it does that it might have a fighting chance. If it continues to be an amorphous segment that tries to be everything for everyone it will soon be crushed by tablets and the resurgent laptop.

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