It was one of the hottest-selling items in the consumer electronics market in late 2007 and into 2008. At a time when many vendors were struggling to sell PCs, it was selling consistently in Amazon's top 10 list of technology devices. Sony first dismissed the category but finally embraced it. The lone holdout in the industry was Apple, which ignored quarterly advice from financial analysts and stubbornly refused to enter the category. Apple was correct, the analysts wrong.
If you haven't guessed, I'm talking about the short-lived phenomenon known as the netbook. At this point, it's looking as if netbooks will be no more than a historical footnote, a bump on the road between PCs and media tablets, such as the iPad.
It's hard to even define what a netbook was supposed to be. They were pitched as a new product category, but they weren't really. Instead, they were simply laptops whose design arose from the question, "How much computer can I build for $300 to 500?" This was a change in design philosophy in a field in which products were spec'd against the desired features and materials. Traditional laptops had been cramming them all in. The netbook stripped them all out if they couldn't fit the price target.
So, why was the netbook a success back in the day? Let's call it an imperfect storm of technology. At the end of 2007, netbooks were sporting 7-inch screens, tiny keyboards, roughly 4GB of storage and half a gig of RAM. They ran Linux, since Windows would have added to the cost significantly. If price was your main consideration in buying a computing device, a netbook was attractive. Otherwise, no. But by 2008, screen sizes were larger, keyboards were bigger, and most of the devices were shipping with Windows, following Microsoft's decision to allow vendors to use Windows XP in netbooks. Helping keep the price down were low-cost Intel Atom processors. Netbooks were looking more attractive, and then the recession hit, which meant that many more people were being driven by price. The netbook took off.
Until, that is, users realized that what they were purchasing were underpowered devices that looked a lot like more expensive laptops but didn't work like them. In fact, even when netbooks were selling well, they had one of the highest rates of consumer dissatisfaction and return.
The cellphone and laptop had long been the core part of users' mobile experience. Where did the netbook fit in? It wasn't a compelling replacement for either one, and no one was going to carry both a netbook and a laptop. Enter Apple and the iPad.
After years of failure with 'tweener devices, the market was given real validity when Apple showed there was room for a device that fit neatly between the phone and the PC. In short, the media tablet was the missing link, the device that the netbook aspired to become but never could be. The result: a growing market for media tablets with users integrating them into their technology ecosystem, along with smartphones and PCs. At price points similar to the netbook, the media tablet has emerged and been adopted by users as a ubiquitous device for content consumption and creation, with more capabilities than a smartphone but less of the hassle of carrying and maintaining a laptop at all times. It took a long time for a new category of device to emerge, and now that it has, there's no looking back.
And that's why netbooks are fast becoming museum pieces.
Michael Gartenberg is a research director at Gartner. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @Gartenberg.
Read more about mobile and wireless in Computerworld's Mobile and Wireless Topic Center.
This story, "So Long, Netbook. Hello, Media Tablet." was originally published by Computerworld.