Michael Dell's Not a Netbook Fan, but His Customers Are

We already knew that Apple hated netbooks. But now Dell does too? Michael Dell, founder and CEO of the world's second largest PC maker, dissed mini-note PCs Tuesday night at a Silicon Valley dinner. Slamming netbooks' smaller screens and low-power hardware, Dell said that the average user of a 15-inch laptop, if given a 10-inch netbook, would be dissatisfied with the smaller PC within 36 hours. And according to IDG News, Dell slammed the entire netbook genre with this peculiar remark: "For a replacement machine or for a high-end machine, it's not what we'd recommend."

Dell's comment is odd because his company offers a variety of netbooks, including several with tiny 10-inch screens he seems to hold in disdain. It's not every day that a CEO badmouths his company's wares. Dell may be right that a mini-note can't replace a high-end laptop, but I doubt many, if any, netbook buyers assume it can. Rather, they choose a netbook because it's cheap, lightweight, easy to carry, and does everything they ask of it.

Would a $299 Dell Mini 10v outperform a $1799 Dell Alienware M17x? Of course not. And anyone trading down from a 17-inch display and full-size keyboard to a Mini 10v would be miserable. The ergonomic and performance compromises would be too great.

Better than Smartphones

But the netbook is often a step up from that other Web-browsing gizmo favored by travelers: the smartphone. Despite recent improvements in mobile interfaces, most notably the touchscreen, smartphones offer a lousy Web experience. There's too much resizing, zooming, and dragging, and many pages don't render correctly. Given a choice, I'd prefer a netbook, particularly when traveling.

It's wrong to lump all netbooks together and imply that they're junk. While some bargain systems are indeed crappy, others like the new Nokia Booklet 3G offer some interesting innovations such as 3G broadband and 12 hours of usage time (although I'm skeptical about the battery life claim).

A 10-inch netbook may not work as a laptop replacement, but a slightly larger system might. If a Mini 10v is too small, how about a $399 Dell Inspiron 11z (11.6-inch screen), or a $449 Inspiron 14 (14-inch)? Besides, is there really a distinction between netbook and notebook? They're both laptop computers, only one is smaller.

The netbook's biggest offense is that it's proven to be wildly popular with consumers. It seems that Dell and other tech execs in the Windows biosphere are kicking themselves for creating a category of portable computers that, well, simply aren't very profitable. Their goal is to steer shoppers toward higher-margin laptops, but the lure of the low-cost netbook is simply too strong.

Contact Jeff Bertolucci via Twitter (@jbertolucci) or at jbertolucci.blogspot.com.

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