Questioning the netbook phenomenon

Can any computer maker, even Apple, ignore the trend?

I bet Microsoft wins this game, too. If your company requires Microsoft Office, and it's thinking about buying netbooks, it needs Windows XP or Windows 7 on those netbooks. Either way, limiting simultaneous apps to three is an IT help desk headache waiting to bloom.

But the netbook phenomenon isn't really about Apple or Microsoft. At least, not yet. And this is the kicker: Many people love the small form-factor, lightweight design of netbooks. Such computers are appealing to a wide range of potential buyers, everything from casual computer users to on-the-go and even advanced business people (as travel computers). And there can be no denying that more and more enterprises are considering netbooks because of their need to reduce costs in a tough economy.

That brings me to the main point: It's really no secret why the netbook phenomenon got kicked into high gear about six months ago. It's about money and the most severe economic downturn in most people's lifetimes. Take that out of the equation, and netbooks would still be on the rise, but they would be considered by far fewer potential customers. So a big part of the netbook hype cycle was fueled by the money savings. Nothing wrong with that. But I question whether it's a long-term phenomenon.

What's going to happen when the economy comes back? It probably won't happen overnight, since many people's financial change in perspective will linger long after the downturn becomes history. But the strongest motivator -- saving money -- will no longer be there. And the focus on netbooks may start to dissipate at that point. The desire to save money is not enough of a demographic on which to hang a rapidly growing product category.

Cook has a point, too. The cramped keyboards, limited OSs and apps, constrained specs, and small screens may get old for at least some netbook users over time. Less is more only to a point. And then it just becomes, well, less.

The single most important factor in the future of notebooks, however, may not be the economy or even the netbook OS platforms like Android, Linux and Windows 7. The future of the product category probably hinges on hardware innovation yet to arrive. It's an immature product category. If hardware makers can move beyond making very small portable computers cheaply with well considered trade-offs, and can transition into creating hardware that becomes more or less indispensable, that's what will make the trend stick.

The obvious direction for that kind of innovation would be convergence of netbooks with smartphones. That's the direction that many Android-based netbooks are likely to head. But could mobile convergence divide the netbook category in two? I think that's quite possible. Netbook buyers are not all highly mobile, nor are they all interested in paying the monthly subscription fees for 3G data services.

I don't have the answers. No one does. But the questions are fascinating enough on their own.

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Scot Finnie

Computerworld (US)
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