The netbook may be dead, but there's no escaping its legacy

The netbook has fallen out of favour - but don't underestimate the huge impact this tiny form factor has had.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

The netbook was the first real reinvention of the PC since the laptop, but in the last couple of years the form factor has been selling less and less well and fewer manufacturers have been willing to offer the devices.

RIP the netbook? Image: CNET

In a piece over at The Guardian, Charles Arthur has called time on the mini-laptops, and who can blame him? It certainly seems that the netbook's day is almost over.

I remember getting one of the first netbooks when they came out half a dozen years ago or so and being tremendously excited by the possibilities of such a cheap and utterly portable computing device.

Cheaper, lighter and faster than the laptops that preceded them — I was pretty certain netbooks would take over the world. And yet, within a few years, they've all but disappeared from tech industry roadmaps.

Thinking about why the netbook fizzled out, I'm reminded of that old Henry Ford quote: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said 'faster horses'."

And that's just what the netbook is — a faster horse.

Or rather, a smaller, lighter and somewhat underpowered horse that you could fit in a coat pocket. It's what we thought we wanted, not what we actually needed.

That's because after that first flush of excitement, it quickly became apparent that, for me at least, netbooks still had most of the disadvantages of the laptops they were supposed to replace.

Yes, they're faster to boot up — but not fast enough for me to flip open for instant use. The undersized keyboard rapidly made typing an irritation, and the lack of power and memory became infuriating as I expected a netbook to behave like a laptop — even at a third of the price.

What we really want

It turns out that we didn't want a smaller laptop, we wanted a completely different device.

One that was constantly connected to the internet, always on, cheap and could fit easily into a pocket — otherwise known as a smartphone.

Indeed, from the day I got a smartphone, the netbook sat in a desk drawer, which is where (I assume) it still is today.

And then along came tablets — especially the cheaper Android devices — to mop up all the tech buyers who still wanted something bigger than a smartphone.

The age of the netbook ended as suddenly as it had started. The fate of netbooks has to be set against the backdrop of a PC industry desperately trying to reinvent itself as we lose faith in the PC as the standard (or even dominant) device we use.

The netbook was one of the first symptoms, or maybe even causes, of that fragmentation, which still has PC makers reeling (Ed Bott has a good take on this). Now manufacturers are hard at work on new form factors — tablets, phablets, weird hybrids — price points, and laptop successors.

And while the netbook era has almost passed, cheap, light, and surprisingly powerful hardware is more widely available than ever. And there are plenty of smaller, lighter notebooks around for those who like the form factor.

Looking to the future, something like the Chromebook perhaps shows the next evolution of the PC into a lightweight, constantly connected device — the sort of thing I wanted the netbook to be.

Consequently, the legacy and the impact of the netbook lives on in the devices we use today, and will use in the future — whether any company chooses to market their products under that label again, or not.

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