What really signed the PC's death warrant? Microsoft's decision to support netbooks

What really signed the PC's death warrant? Microsoft's decision to support netbooks

Summary: Some of the reasons for the collapse of the the PC market go a lot further back than the reception of Windows 8.

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When Asus introduced its Eee netbooks running Linux, it heralded a flood of cheap-and-cheerful small machines that used tiny amounts of cheap USB-connected flash storage and didn't run Windows.

Users flocked to them because they were cheap and in many cases mistook them for small laptops that would work like their familiar full-size laptops.

PC makers switched to putting Windows XP on their netbooks. That still didn't make a netbook a real cheap notebook, though — for that you needed an expensive ultraportable with a business price tag — but it validated the concept.

As did the way Microsoft reacted. Microsoft saw netbooks as a significant enough threat to explicitly develop Windows 7 to run on them.

That was also a response to the problems of Vista, which only ran well on a brand new PC with a powerful new processor and the then-rare full 4Gb of memory. Having then-Windows chief Seven Sinofsky show off the netbook he was using as his main PC on stage at the Windows 7 PDC showed that Microsoft was serious about not letting Windows 7 be another 'bloated' operating system (on a new PC Vista actually performed rather well).

And knowing your boss is running daily builds on a netbook has to concentrate the mind of a Windows developer on performance and battery issues. Every PC user saw the performance benefit of that work.

But by taking netbooks so seriously, Microsoft also enabled the race to the bottom that has culminated in $99 Android tablets. Instead of user experience or usability, OEMs concentrated on knocking out the cheapest possible devices they could sell. Never mind the quality, feel the width - or never mind the profit, we'll make it up in volume, as the old jokes go.

Perhaps, if Microsoft hadn't blinked, if it had said that Windows didn't actually scale down to a tiny little screen and a hard-to-use keyboard, if it had concentrated on making Windows a powerful premium experience that was also easy to use, the PC market wouldn't have collapsed quite the way it has.

This, admittedly, would have relied on OEMs actually delivering premium hardware that wasn't compromised by crapware - or on Microsoft launching its own PCs much earlier than it did.

Microsoft would have had to come up with something for the budget market and it would have had to be something that ran Office - but given that Microsoft discontinued the free Office Starter offering, it's likely that netbooks running it didn't actually convinced many people to upgrade to pay-for Office.

Perhaps ignoring netbooks instead of legitimising them as a major PC sector would have kept PCs as the high-margin devices like Apple Macs.

Tablets would still have come along, but the PC industry wouldn't have cut its own throat and devalued the PC name in a race to the bottom. And maybe that would have left space to deliver more Windows 7 ultraportables that could do what people actually wanted netbooks for, while Windows RT was under development.

Topics: Microsoft, Laptops, Mobility, Tablets, PCs

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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73 comments
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  • Damned If they did, damned if they didn't

    At best they only delayed the inevitable shift towards more modern, portable and cheaper forms of computing. What scared the pants off them was the toehold Linux could have got in the netbook market, so they had to.
    Alan Smithie
    • A good start...

      It forced them to work on the bloat, that was XP's and Vista's biggest problems. Now, with Windows 8, it works very well on Atom based tablets, which compete well, in performance and battery terms, with ARM based tablets, whilst allowing them to be dock to a keyboard, mouse and external monitor to run traditional Windows software comfortably as well.

      With electricity prices sky rocketing at the moment, I'm happy that the amount of power used to run a Windows PC keeps on dropping.
      wright_is
    • There's certainly a lot of speculation, either way

      One thing Microsoft's decisions did do, was set a low water mark on pricing. A lot of people are expecting to pay $300-400 for a computer. People look at an $800+ Ultrabook and say, yeah but I can get this POS laptop for $350. Most people will say that.

      There was an article on allthingsd yesterday that was saying the netbook was dying, and tablet had killed it. Mary's article is a similar subject from a different viewpoint. I commented at allthingsd that netbooks sales boosted PC sales the last few years. Without the netbook, PC sales would have been declining for some time now. Acer has gone from the #2 PC maker to a distant fourth.

      As Alan said, Linux scared the bejeebers out of Microsoft. In the meantime, tablets became popular. Tablets are now scaring the bejeebers out of Microsoft. No matter what decisions Microsoft might have made, we probably probably end up in the same spot. Microsoft had little control over external market factors.

      To Microsoft's credit, Windows RT performs well on all processor platforms. Legacy Windows can tax an Atom processor and won't work on ARM. Project MinWin appears to have been a success. This is the true re-imagining of Windows. Microsoft has come a long way in a short period of time. But it means legacy can't die quick enough. Legacy Windows is not in Microsoft's future. A great start would be to release their mini tablet as an RT only device.

      But first Microsoft has to finish Windows 8. Complete system functionality must be accessible from Metro (Control Panel, drivers, file system, Office.) Project Blue will solve everything?! The Office team seems to be chomping at the bit to release a touch based product. Microsoft could pull this off.
      Info Dave
      • With Microsoft

        With Microsoft, the 'next version' will always 'fix everything'. At leasyt that's what their Marketing Departments says. Yet, they continue to pump out incomplete upgrades. That's why the sage advice for buying Microsoft products continues to be "Never buy anything until the third version.'

        Windows 7 was the third version of Windows Vista.

        Windows XP, with as much praise as it gets now, was a real DOG of an OS until after SP4.

        And so it continues to go.
        YetAnotherBob
        • Anything...

          ...that's REAL, you'd care to add?
          Feldwebel Wolfenstool
  • So many things wrong...

    There are so many things wrong with this article, it's hard to know where to start. Let's begin with the "netbooks are toys" argument. It's the same elitist nonsense that the "tablets are mere consumption devices" garbage we hear from people who seem to think that if you're not running a 300 column spreadsheet you might as well be watching the Mickey Mouse Club.

    In fact what netbooks showed was that PCs had become far more powerful than the average user needed them to be. A netbook like the Acer One series provided all the power that a user needed: it ran Word just fine so your kid could do his school work, and ran web browsers just as well so you could get online. The only thing you couldn't do on one was high end gaming, but by that point in time, that's what your Xbox was for.

    Was Microsoft "foolish" for validating netbooks by supporting them? More like Microsoft saw a threat posed by cheap laptops running Linux and rushed to stamp out the fire.

    I find it somewhat puzzling that people bemoan the emergence of inexpensive computing devices, as if the consumer somehow benefits from paying high prices for technology he doesn't need. Buying a $1200.00 ultra-book when all you need is a netbook or a tablet is like putting 93 octane gas in a Honda Civic. You're just throwing money away for no good reason.
    dsf3g
    • Agreed

      although it isn't just high-end gaming that needs power. Video and photo editing, among other tasks are also beyond a typical netbook or tablet. I use my W8 Atom tablet for most things, but Lightroom still needs more memory and more processing power than an Atom can provide.

      There is however a grain of truth that Windows 8 is killing PC sales, it and Windows 7 both need less hardware than previous versions, which means that people just don't need to upgrade their old hardware any more. If it is still running, people will still use it, they are only really replacing their kit when it breaks - although with the people I know, this seems to have been the case since about 2000...

      People are replacing their hardware every decade, instead of every 18 months, because the new hardware doesn't provide any cost benefit. In the old days, where software was always half a step ahead of what the hardware could provide, people had to upgrade, now the move is to lower powered, more portable devices, so the software has stopped waisting resources, so the older hardware with more power and memory is running better than ever.
      wright_is
      • Actually...

        Year before last, I was forced to use an Eee PC (upgraded to 2GB memory) as my primary machine for several months when my desktop fried and couldn't be immediately replaced, and I got it to do nearly everything the desktop could do, including editing a couple of videos. It wasn't easy or a terribly satisfying experience, and I had to disable quite a few things to free up the resources to make it happen, but the work got done. The only thing I didn't try to do was play any real games on it. I'm sure it wouldn't handle anything very high-end or demanding, but one of these days I should try actually installing The Sims 2 on it and see if it would work...

        At any rate, the netbook certainly didn't convince me that I didn't need a new desktop; quite the opposite. Though it was adequate for getting things done, I was really feeling its lack of speed, power and display size. I got a proper rig again as soon as I was able, and replaced my husband's this Christmas. Before retail sales of Windows 7 are discontinued I fully intend to upgrade my daughter's.

        To address a point in the article, I should also note that, though small and low in price, not all netbooks are/were of poor quality. Mine is a pretty sturdy little beast; it was purchased used and has taken a fair amount of abuse since, and it's still working fine.
        Ginevra
      • Moores Law

        The Hysterisis curve (S shaped curve that is) for Moores Law is flattening out. It had to happen. that's what you are describing. But, yes, it is no longer true that the next new computer will run 10X faster, and cost less.
        YetAnotherBob
      • Finally, someone else sees it.

        I disagree that Windows 8 has anything to do with killing PC sales.

        A big part of the decline in PC sales is that there is no new killer app that requires a stronger PC. Unless you like PC gaming, there just is not a big reason to get a bigger, faster PC. My five year old portable does everything that a new portable will do. It even runs Windows 8, and it runs all but the latest games, and most of those better than most new portables.

        So.....why upgrade?

        Windows 8's biggest problem may be that it does not offer enough to make people want a new PC to run it, and it certainly does not require the latest hardware, which compounds the problem.

        I have said it many times, in relation to the iPad, but here I will change it to match the article and phrase it for netbooks.

        The lesson of the netbook (or iPad) is that most users do not need the computing power of a PC.

        And even if you do not want a tablet, and you want a real keyboard, you can buy a relatively good portable for little more than a mediocre tablet.
        AudeKhatru
    • it's about experience

      the experience of using Excel on a 8-10" screen at 1024 resolution (far lower than tablets today) was painful. the experience of keys too small to type on with normal fingers was painful. Even with a dual-core Atom in the third generation of netbooks, the time you had to wait to switch from one application to another was painful. Saying that a netbook gives you all the PC power you need reminds me of friends who have replaced their four year old PC that they thought they were happy with, with a new notebook - when you actually get a fast, performant system, the difference is night and day.
      mary.branscombe
      • poor Surface then

        so if excel on a netbook screen is a bad thing, surely you'll be criticising Windows Surface tablets as well? (they only come in 10.6" format)

        Form factor is such an obvious thing its not worth commenting on, of course a small screen is small! Users with such devices do not expect to run programs that require a huge amount of screen space to operate effectively.

        The article is still poor, but I think the race to kill the PC market wasn't by making Windows more efficient - they've been doing that ever since they saw benchmarks showing Linux booted to desktop faster and Vista was a dog.

        Incidentally, I think the reason people who upgrade get a faster experience is because all the cruft that's built up over time in Windows is gone when they re-install. Hardware differences are almost un-noticeable nowadays, even when I upgraded my boot HDD to a SSD, I noticed boot times was a lot faster.. but that was it. The whole thing still works just the same as before - because the difference isn't dramatic enough to actually notice even if it performance is improved.
        gbjbaanb2
        • Your experience is entirely opposite to mine

          Perhaps the apps you use aren't all that large and complex. Perhaps you don't switch between a large number of apps every day as you do your work/play.

          My first laptop with built-in SSD spoiled me for ever. My 13" Core-i5 Sony Vaio Z Series with SSD ran rings around my Core-i7 MacBook Pro which had a 5400rpm HDD. So much so in fact, that I finally bit the bullet and bought a Samsung 840Pro SSD for my MBP. The difference is night and day. Big apps that used to take several tens of seconds to open now open in 3-5s (e.g. Visual Studio, Photoshop, Outlook). Smaller apps open instantaneously.

          Even though I typically only reboot my machines once a month (and even that is done automatically at night), being able to reboot in less than 40s is astonishingly liberating. I no longer begrudge rebooting because it's now faster to reboot than it was to open a single large app!

          Regarding resolution: "netbook market grew by more than 160 percent quarter-on-quarter during Q3 of 2008" and "Netbooks commonly come with a resolution of either 1024×600 or 800×480."

          I think Mary was noting the high-end netbook's horizontal 1024px resolution, not vertical. Excel on a 1366x768 Surface RT is reasonably comfortable for most light-medium use, but a Surface Pro's 1920 x 1080 screen, it's better than most laptops and can easily be zoomed in/out or the DPI settings altered if the screen density is too high.
          bitcrazed
        • "gbjbaanb2" said ...

          ... "Incidentally, I think the reason people who upgrade get a faster experience is because all the cruft that's built up over time in Windows is gone when they re-install."

          This was certainly true with Windows XP - which was absolutely terrible at disk management. But Windows 7/8 does all of these chores exceptionally well so the need to periodically re-build a system is long gone.
          M Wagner
          • No, Still needs periodic reboots

            I find that the Windows 7 laptop that is usually not turned off, but instead hibernates between uses still slows down appreciatively over several weeks time. This goes away if it is instead rebooted. That fixes the problems, which I believe are due to memory leaks.

            The problems come from many programs and are not all Microsoft caused.
            YetAnotherBob
          • Re: The problems come from many programs and are not all Microsoft

            If an app can cause the OS to leak memory even after the app quits, to the point where you need an OS reboot to clear the problem, then that's a problem with the OS, not the app.
            ldo17
          • background apps

            I'd investigate what's allowed to run in the notification area; should be no memory leak after the apps are closed in win 7
            mary.branscombe
      • True but ...

        ... Linux on a small device at price-points around $350 (at the time) was pretty attractive. This was the push that finally drove Windows OEMs to drop the price of traditional PCs into the $350 to $500 realm (this allowed OEMs to compete against the iPad as well as the Linux netbook). Everybody wins!

        Most of today's tablets - wither their small screens have the same problems - but most tablets are consumption devices - not like netbooks, which were perceived as production devices.
        M Wagner
    • Agreed

      There is no "too cheap". To say that PC's should remain expensive is to say they should be the sole property of the "economically elite", forever out of reach for the vast majority of people on this planet. That is past thinking, what the PC "was" (and will remain for many), a vital workhorse for modern economies. And loses sight of what it is "becoming", an appliance as familiar and necessary to modern life as the television or a radio. The internet and cloud computing have turned the computer into a vital "information consumption and communication device". Therefore there is no "too cheap" there is only a "minimum acceptable functionality" that puts these devices within the reach of more people as prices drop.
      oncall
      • cheap is a problem

        inexpensive is not.

        Also, the race to the bottom has been a real problem for OEMs, because there is almost no profit margin in a portable PC these days. They have to shave every penny and they care much more about profit margins than they do about quality products.

        I spent ten years at Dell watching things go down the drain. Dell launched the price war and now the entire industry is paying the price.

        Cheap prices may be good for consumers, but only if they get a quality product for that price. A cheap POS is still a cheap POS and buyers might find themselves a little happier if they would spend a little more money.
        AudeKhatru