My colleague Joe Wilcox recently posted on the Microsoft Watch blog an interesting article entitled "The Problem with Netbooks". In this article he puts forth a compelling argument why netbooks won't last as a significant segment and will become subsumed into laptops or disappear altogether.
If I had read Joe's article a week before he posted it I probably would have agreed with nearly all of his arguments. But after traveling to Demo 09 and getting a firsthand look at how many people are using netbooks, my opinions on the category have changed a bit.
First was my surprise at the number of netbooks that were in use by the crowd at Demo. Easily 15 percent of the crowd at the show was using netbooks instead of laptops and the number may well have been higher.
One of Joe's arguments for the current popularity of netbooks is the low cost--that people are buying them because they're cheap, not small. But the crowd of VCs, entrepreneurs and analysts at Demo are hardly low-income, and yet netbooks were quite popular. Also, just take a look at prices on newegg.com or tigerdirect.com. In many cases you can find full-featured, well-configured laptops for the same price as many netbooks.
Looking around the crowd at Demo, the real attraction of the netbook was indeed its size. Gazing at the netbooks of the people sitting next to me at the show I was definitely envious of them for that reason.
Even my relatively small 13-inch Macbook gets heavy from schlepping it around all day. The netbook users get much less to carry but don't give up anything in terms of keyboards or processing power.
When one looks at the netbook, it really does have a perfect size. Many people assume that netbooks will go away as phones become more powerful, but I don't think I'd be sitting at a conference trying to take notes on any phone, even with an attached keyboard (and in fact I didn't see one person at Demo trying to use a phone to take notes).
When I talked to some of the attendees using netbooks at the show, this was one of the key features for them. They had a small, lightweight device that allowed them to do most of the important things that a full laptop would do and also many things that a smart phone can't do.
In his article Joe states that the beginning of netbooks was the OLPC's XO laptop. This is certainly true when it comes to the ability to build these types of devices for a low price. But when I look at netbooks I see much older devices; in fact, I still own one.
Getting back from the show I dug my 9-year-old Sony Vaio Picturebook out of storage and, sure enough, in nearly every way it is a netbook. And I remember how much I loved that Vaio, the lightness and size of it, the ability to easily type on the keyboard, and being able to run all of the apps that I needed.
Of course there were some things I didn't love about it. Running Windows XP on that Vaio was a severe test of patience; everything took a while. And I really didn't love the $2,000-plus price, which was higher than many standard laptops of the time.
The recent netbook revolution has fixed many of these problems. The netbooks of today have that perfect size of the old subcompact notebooks but without the high price tag or slow performance typical of those devices.
So I've changed my opinion on netbooks. I really think that this is a category destined to stick around as long as we use laptops in any form.
Because for weary travelers, size matters. And sizewise, smart phones are too small, laptops are too big, but netbooks are just right.