Switched On: The netbook legacy

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

DNP Switched On The Netbook Legacy

In describing Toshiba's decision to exit the U.S. netbook market, Engadget eulogized that it was "a sad day for those who like their computers tiny." Toshiba, a pioneer in the ultraportable market with the Libretto and Portege, produced what were among the best-regarded netbooks despite entering the market late. Indeed, even with the many aspersions cast upon netbooks by one-time friends (such as Dell and Toshiba) and perennial foes (such as Apple) alike, the accelerating exit of netbooks will leave a void in the marketplace. Many consumers saw the value of a 10-inch device with an integrated keyboard that can run Windows apps, available new in some configurations for $250 or less.

And yet, even as major PC companies flee the field, accessory makers such as Logitech and Zagg, as well as overfunded Kickstarter projects such as Brydge or Incase's Origami case, present new ways to unite the iPad with its most conspicuous missing component: the keyboard. It seems incongruous that a 10-inch netbook is undesirable whereas a 10-inch tablet paired with a keyboard for which it is not optimized is. And most keyboards for the iPad use Bluetooth, the use of which is verboten on flights (even as WiFi has been approved).

While the iPad is often blamed for (or credited with) killing the netbook, it may be thought of more as the facilitator of an assisted suicide. Even as the netbook served to drive units and market share, few in the PC industry embraced it -- from Intel, which ensured that the device class remained severely limited, to PC vendors that found the products unprofitable. In addition to feeling competition from the iPad and other tablets, netbooks were also attacked on the portability front by ultrabooks and on the affordability front by larger laptops with more aggressive pricing.

Netbooks never got any respect. While Steve Jobs rebuked the netbook at the iPad's introduction, the iPad owes a bit of debt to the little laptops. The netbook demonstrated the potential of an inexpensive, portable second computing device, with a screen size of about 10 inches, intended primarily for media consumption and light productivity. Their small size and low weight made them popular fixtures at coffee shops while their low prices made them justifiable to those who might have had a desktop at home but wanted occasional portable computing.

Despite the relatively low levels of investment they commanded, netbooks improved in some of their weak areas in their short heyday. While their small chassis and relatively energy-inefficient processors (compared to ARM-based smartphones and tablets) made for disappointing battery life at first, this improved somewhat over the years to enable suitable stamina for the limited usage for which they were positioned. Netbook keyboards, while often a bit cramped, have still offered a more familiar, effective on-the-go typing experience compared to screen-based ones.

Most netbooks used hard drives and Atom processors and relied upon a fan -- again, given the low price points, often not a high-quality one. The small footprints of netbooks were also usually accompanied by a less-than-svelte profile, particularly as vendors tried to beef up the battery life. More recent entrants, though, such as the ASUS X101, had thickness measurements that were in line with their other dimensions.

While some of the early netbooks, including the first ASUS Eee PC, used homegrown user interfaces atop various Linux distributions, they proved no competition for Windows, especially after Windows 7 undid the many wrongs of Vista and got Microsoft on the lower-resource train that will soon pull into the next Metro station. Having Windows on a netbook allowed users to take advantage of the same apps they used on a full-sized laptop or desktop even though some would occasionally run into issues such as large dialog boxes that ran off the screen and other user interface glitches. However, without support for system-on-chip architectures such as those from ARM or those coming to market from Intel, Windows-based netbooks were hard-pressed to compete with the sleek form factors and long battery life of the iPad and leading-edge Android tablets.

In 2009, when Android was in its infancy, Switched On discussed the poor prospects for the OS on netbooks. And even though the software has matured and staked out larger displays since then, the clamshell continues to be largely the domain of Windows and OS X, as Switched On discussed last fall. The ASUS Transformer line, the first of which won the 2011 Switchie Award for Product of the Year, costs twice that of a netbook's opening price when configured with a keyboard. Particularly given the constraints of today's Intel processors, Apple has created a great ultraportable in the 11-inch MacBook Air, but at three to four times the price of the lowly netbook.

That leaves Microsoft, and while the company is focused on the Metro makeover for Windows 8, its tablets and tablet-clamshell hybrids include cost-increasing touchscreens; Surface is a good example of this. Despite its embrace of the keyboard and portability, pricing will almost certainly be equal to, if not north of, the iPad. Windows 8 running on Intel SoC hardware or, once its app portfolio is established, Windows RT may provide the right combination of app and hardware support to remake the populist portable.

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Particularly with some companies pursuing detachable keyboards as a means of keeping their toes in both the laptop and tablet market, the term "netbook" may fade as it gives way to terms with fewer negative connotations such as "ultrabooks" or "hybrid tablets." We'll get the portability and gain versatility, while the companies will get a more sustainable profit margin. But there are still some who want a clamshell that is as compact, cheap and thin as Ramen noodles, but with the kick of a fra diavolo sauce.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director and principal analyst of the NPD Connected Intelligence service at The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.