Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Death of Netbooks?

It seems that netbooks are becoming passée. A bit of a niche product. When they first came out there were all sorts of options. You could have them installed with Linux. You had the choice out of a solid state drive or a traditional hard drive.

In New Zealand, the Linux machines disappeared fairly quickly. Then the solid state drives went as they were too small for MS Windows. So soon you didn't really have much of a choice. Myself, I was fairly happy the "Redmond tax" (the name given to the amount people have to pay for the MS Windows license even knowing that you won't be using that license) for the choice of netbook.

Google added a nail to the coffin. Gmail's new interface is really quite unfriendly to 10" screens - if you use the chat feature. And now, it seems manufacturers are pulling out of the market.

When they first came out I was excited. The size and weight had me excited. Not so small as to render them next to impossible to use. Not so heavy as to cause permanent back damage. Once I had one, I couldn't live without it. It had another feature that more traditional laptops just can't compete with. Battery time. I can't remember the number of times I'd have to go madly dashing about trying to find a power point before my computer went to sleep on me. A netbook would last me most of the day without having to be plugged in.

How were netbooks advertised? Small, less powerful than laptops. Even the Linux they were putting on them felt compromised. Windows has always had terrible start up times and, in my opinion, really isn't well suited to a portable environment (where boot up time matters).

Intel limited the use of the Atom processor to machines with a maximum of 10" monitors. The various other options (the VIA Nano, the AMD Fusion series, ARM Cortex etc.) didn't seem to make ANY inroads - all suffering issues. The VIA Nano, while more powerful than the Intel Atom, also had higher power requirements resulting in shorter battery time. The AMD Fusion series seemed to suffer from the same affliction - better video performance. Higher power usage. I have no idea what happened with the ARM Cortex. From what I've seen, they had lower power requirements (13 hours from a 6 cell battery) than the Atom but suffered some disappointing form factors - resulting in unusable keyboards.

So what's happening with the market? The processors are all low cost parts. So it's not in the chip manufacturer's best interest to keep the netbook market alive. Intel were trying to break into the cell phone market but this seems to have been in vain. Could netbooks have just been an attempted stepping stone?

The netbook market can be attributed to the OLPC project. Small low cost machines for education. Everyone wanted one when they first came out. In America they ran the "buy two, get one" programme i.e. you paid for 2 of them, and got 1. The other one was given to those in need. I got asked a question about whether a netbook or laptop would be more appropriate for a child today. Netbooks are becoming vital to the education market. While tablets are cool, I don't believe they are inducive to writing. The tactile feedback of a keyboard is amazingly important.

All of those original concerns I had - light, small and battery life - are important ones for children. So even though the options for netbooks are diminishing, the demand is still there and likely to increase.

I firmly believe that netbooks could be a huge market if the marketing was done right - a very portable computer with great battery life. Of course, if the chip manufacturers don't want low cost versions of their processors competing with higher versions of their processors, then they can make it hard for netbook manufacturers.

Netbooks have been a bit hit and miss. The Toshiba offerings apparently had a design flaw that resulted in a lot of broken screens. HP had a lanyard slot rather than a kensington lock slot (no metal framing to make the kensington slot viable?).  The Acer Aspire One really didn't have a good feel to them - coming across as plasticy.

So are we only going to be left with the XO, Classmate and India's rumoured $30 tablet?

No comments:

Post a Comment