The Netbook Revolution: A Whole New Niche in Computing

The netbook you know today gives just a taste of what's to come.

Cheap, portable, and packed with features that cater to Net-savvy consumers, netbooks are the darlings of today's computer buyers. While overall PC sales have slumped in the current recession, demand for netbooks is actually growing. In a recent ChangeWave Research survey, only 12 percent of respondents said they were planning to buy a new computer in the next three months, but among those who were, nearly one in four were considering netbooks.

Worldwide, that demand could add up to big numbers. According to Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs, the global market for netbooks could be "substantially larger" than the current notebook market. Some analysts predict that as many as 18 million netbooks will ship this year alone.

[ What netbooks should your business consider? The InfoWorld Test Center uncovers the best netbooks for business. ]

For hardware makers, however, the netbook success story has been bittersweet. Whatever else netbooks bring to the table, the category's strongest selling point has been its low cost. Where once speed was everything, today's recession-rattled customers are willing to trade the power of full-fledged PCs for rock-bottom pricing. That's troubling news for some vendors. Some analysts worry that manufacturers have trapped themselves in a race to the bottom, with netbook sales cannibalizing sales of their traditional, higher-margin notebook offerings.

But fear not. If low cost is what customers want, low cost they shall have -- and if all goes according to plan, those sales won't come at the expense of traditional notebooks. Major vendors have begun experimenting with new chips and technologies that could soon push netbook price points to $250 and below. When this new generation of netbook hardware arrives, it will bring with it new software, new UIs, and new form factors that will challenge the idea of netbooks as mere cheapo notebook replacements.

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