Netbooks dead? I think not

Netbooks aren't dying at the hands of tablets. People have just figured out what they're for and are only buying netbooks if they meet their needs.

An awful lot of tech pundits have decried the death of the netbook, with the iPad selling a million units in its first month of life. Tablets, they say, will inevitably replace the cheap ultraportables that began as a vision for 1:1 computing in education with the One Laptop Per Child Program and eventually became Intel-dominated netbooks. Although tablets are certainly expanding the personal, business, and educational computing landscapes, I beg to differ. There's room enough in this here town for both of them. Or something like that.

I'm typing this post on an HP Mini 5102. It certainly lives up to its name (that's my Droid next to it by way of comparison).

However, this is a far cry from the original Asus Eee PC that defined the consumer segment of the market. HP sent it to me to evaluate the high end of their Mini line after I was less than kind to their low-end educational Mini 100e.

At around $690, the Mini on which I'm typing right now is pricey. Too pricey. Sure, it includes a handle.

And a touch screen. And Windows 7 Pro, a Broadcom HD video accelerator, a brushed metal case, and a wicked nice keyboard that invites touch typing, but it's still pushing $700. On the other hand, its video capabilities are pretty slick and the PineTrail chipset gives it 5 hours of battery life with the light 4-cell battery.

My point, however, is not to evaluate the features or price of this little laptop. If you need something that fits in a small bag, purse, or eVest, have money to burn, and want to be able to edit photos or watch HD video with minimal fuss, then it's your call if you want to drop the cash on a "mere netbook." That, of course, is the point. The netbook market has matured to a point where, despite very similar underlying hardware, you have a great deal of choice in products that are far more usable than the original tiny Eee PC.

Next: So why did people buy those little bitty netbooks? »

People bought that awful little computer in droves because it was cheap. I shouldn't say awful. It was a perfectly fine machine for the first generation of a new consumer product. Given the choice between my Droid and an original Eee, I'd pick the Droid. Even for a guy with small hands, I think thumb-typing on the Droid would be faster than typing on the tiny-keyed Eee. However, the Droid didn't exist then.

Now, people still look at netbooks on the basis of cost. Disposable computers have a place (don't tell my wife I said that - if you can't compost it or recycle it, she doesn't want to hear about it). People are just as inclined, however, to look at them based on function and need. Small, light computers with awesome battery life also have a place. So do rugged, highly portable machines. Or inexpensive tablets. Or real tablets like the iPad, for that matter.

Netbooks have matured and differentiated to such a point that they meet a variety of computing needs in many markets. No, they aren't being bought in the extraordinary numbers they once were. However, this hardly marks the death of the market. Typing remains the dominant form of creating content. This isn't changing for the foreseeable future and will ensure that netbooks, however they may evolve, aren't going anywhere.

What has happened, though, is that both the consumer and enterprise markets have recognized that not every user can have their needs met with a netbook. Many would be better served with an inexpensive laptop, a desktop, a thin client, a smartphone, or a tablet. That recognition, more than the sole introduction of the tablet to the marketplace, slowed sales growth in the netbook segment.

If you need a netbook, buy a netbook. $400 will buy you a companion PC that lets you write, surf, read, Skype, IM, manage photos, and access network resources in ways that even the best of smartphones (and, arguably, the iPad and other tablets) still can't. If you want to talk about the death of the netbook, see me in a few years when the tablet market has exploded, someone has figured out a better way to input text than a keyboard (and I'm not talking voice recognition because airplane rides would become absolutely insufferable and every office would sound like a call center), and the "screen" has become so ubiquitous that all we really need to carry around is a personal access device, devoid of input or output capabilities since those will be handled by kiosks, terminals, and other converged devices.

For now, a netbook will always be in my bag, my eVest, or my cargo pants. I have work to do.