Monday, March 07, 2011

The Rise of the Tablet and the Innevitable Death of the Netbook

Last week I added a 10.1" Motorola Xoom to my gadget bag at the expense of a Netbook. As tablets grow in popularity I predict the Netbook's days are numbered.

Shortly after buying an Asus EeePC 701 in 2008 I described it to anyone who would listen as the best technology purchasing decision I'd ever made. It cost £200, was thin, light, and cheap. It booted Windows and loaded Office in under 10 seconds - only the paltry 800x600 display resolution was a legitimate cause of grief.

I used it to write most of my first book during my daily commute, and it was light and thin enough for me to throw in my bag for holidays or trips where I wasn't keen on bringing my laptop along (at the time my laptop was as 17" Vaio desktop replacement that weighed the better part of a metric fucktonne).

Light and with a full-day battery life,  Netbooks were a cheap second computer for lightweight computing tasks and surfing the web.

A one trick pony

Growing up, my parents ran a typewriter sales and repair company. I watched as the typewriter was gradually (and then very quickly) replaced with the desktop computer. For a small while "word processors" were a popular alternative - significantly cheaper than computers, and with most of the features of Word Perfect 5.1.

As PCs, laptops, and printers become cheap and ubiquitous, word processors grew more fanciful in an effort to compete. They offered more fonts and options but at a higher price. Before long, like most one-trick ponies, it was quietly covered with a sheet and put out of its misery.

I had a distinct feeling of deju-vu when late last year  I went in search of a replacement for my EeePC in the hopes of finding something cheaper, lighter, and a little faster. Instead I was presented with devices that were:
  • More expensive.
  • Thicker and heavier.
  • Slower to load and lacking SSDs.
At the same time, my new Macbook weighs around two kilograms and is no more than an inch thick. I can use it to write my book, write my code, edit photos, and pretty much anything else I could want to do.

It's true that a MBP is a lot more expensive than a Netbook - and bulkier - but it's not as though you would buy a Netbook instead of a real laptop. It's an additional device, so it's actually competing with tablets or smartphones - and a smartphone / tablet combo has a lot more to offer.

Smartphones and tablets make Netbooks a quaint irrelevancy

Modern smartphones, led by iPhone and Android, have largely filled the niche of mobile web browsing.

The arrival of the tablet is the final nail in the coffin, with a 10" tablet neatly filling the gap between smartphone and laptop.

With bright, high resolution displays, tablets offer an unparalleled experience for watching video. Games designed for tablets are created specifically for portable hardware featuring a touch screens and accelerometers. Similarly the rich ecosystem of apps is optimized specifically for smartphone and tablet platforms.

Typing on a 10.1" touchscreen is certainly no worse than typing on an undersized Netbook keyboard. Walking into meetings these days I'm increasingly finding people have left their laptops behind and are instead bringing along their tablets.

If you need to type, bring a laptop. If weight is an issue, bring your tablet

Tablets provide an optimized experience for portability, mobility, and touch-based input with a rich selection of apps and games designed with their size and power in mind.

Laptops are cheaper, lighter, and more powerful than ever before. They offer a rich ecosystem of apps and provide the perfect platform where text input is required.

Netbooks can still provide a great platform for getting online, but so can laptops and tablets. Laptops may one day give way to tablets and smartphones entirely, and apps may move entirely online, but Netbooks - like word processors in the 80's - will inevitably fall victim to competitors that offer a more dynamic ecosystem of apps, games, and features at an increasingly comparable price.


  1. Once Google releases a web-based IDE for Android there's no case for a Netbook at all. Until then as a developer I still think that a Netbook has more use.. namely you can write small amounts of code on it.

  2. Anonymous6:17 pm GMT

    Conferences: you need it to type, and weight is an issue.

    I would seriously bemoan the demise of netbooks.

  3. Anonymous6:26 pm GMT

    what about ChromeOS?

  4. So you are saying that Chrome is dead and Android has won ;-)

  5. Anonymous8:17 pm GMT

    Not sure I totally agree to be honest. Tablets have their place, but if you want to do more than watching videos, playing games and some light web browsing they aren't really the best choice. As pointed out by other commentors, coding is one thing you can't yet do on a tablet. Even with a nice IDE (or even a nice editor) I would still much prefer a physical keyboard. I guess you could argue that you could use a Bluetooth keyboard, but really what is the point then?

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  7. With teenaged children, a $200 netbook can stand up to some rough handling and still get the homework finished (with a lot of video-Skyping on the side).

    I admire that you believe could write a book on a tablet. I couldn't face writing even a 5-page report on a touchscreen, no matter how large the keys were. I guess I could haul around a keyboard with a tablet, but a netbook seems so much simpler if I care about travelling light.

    We probably agree, though, that we'll see convergence, with more touchscreens appearing on lower-end laptops, and a user experience and UI more like that of a tablet. Once touchscreens get cheap enough to appear on netbooks, it will be hard to tell the difference between a netbook and tablet -- it's just that some tablets will have fold-out keyboards, while others won't. That's when the category will truly die.

  8. Erm, I don't agree that tablets spell the end of netbooks. Not until they are comparable in both price and storage. A £200 netbook with a 250Gb hard drive can hold all of my music and videos. The biggest tablets offer is 64Gb at present and are at least twice the cost. It's a no brainer choice for people on a budget.

    I'm also not sure that the tablet form factor lends itself to typing for hours like you suggest... but that is secondary to the price. I'm not going to surrender my netbook until decent tablets are £250 or less.

  9. I don't agree either. I really like my netbook, and although I like tablets, my computer usage seems to be pretty much focused on typing (managing systems though ssh, typing code, typing documents, etc).

    I prefer mechanical keys instead of a touch screen for typing because you can type without looking.

    I'm pretty sure there will be a niche for netbooks as small, portable laptops. Especially when travelling, it's great to have a small device that is essentially a full laptop. The "netbook" name might disappear, though.

  10. "If you need to type, bring a laptop. If weight is an issue, bring your tablet"

    How about both? I think it's disingenuous to call netbooks one-trick ponies, you've just pointed two things they do well.

    Mine runs vi, zsh and as many programming languages and services as I can throw at it (as well as all the media I need), yet I can comfortably hack on it on the train and it only cost £200. Why would I want anything else? I find I don't miss a more powerful laptop.

    If you're proposing notebooks will simply get cheaper, lighter and smaller until they have the same benefits current netbooks do, that's more of a reasonable argument. I'd argue that's just the death of the netbook label, though (as Wladimir points out).

  11. Anonymous2:53 pm GMT

    i would love to buy a xoom or an other android tablet. but because i need a companysoftware which runs only on windows, i can't trash my netbook and taking both alon isn't really an option, because my netbook can al a tablet can...

  12. I wonder if they will build a tablet with a decent keyboard... or maybe an arm netbook with android.