The netbook helped spark the move to mobile computing, and the exodus from the traditional office desk to a new "compute anywhere" model. But, the netbook has more or less run its course, and is being replaced by more versatile mobile computing platforms.
It may not have seemed like it when they launched, but smartphones and netbooks were in a competition for the future of mobile computing--like the epic VHS vs. beta battle. Each has gone through some evolution over time, but the netbook has more or less maxed its functionality and capabilities, while smartphones--and subsequently tablets--are just getting started.
The netbook revolutionized mobile computing because it gave users on the go a way to continue working with the operating system and software applications they are familiar with, but in a form factor that won't cause permanent back damage, and with a battery life sufficient to last virtually all day without recharging. The netbook deserves some credit for helping people to embrace mobile computing and realize that it's possible to be productive on the go.
At the same time, though, smartphones were getting faster, more powerful, and more capable. The smartphone itself--even top of the line smartphones like the iPhone 4, or Droid X--is incapable of matching the computing experience on a netbook, but many users discovered that the majority of mobile computing boils down to sending and receiving e-mail, and working with websites--both functions that can be performed from a smartphone, which is even smaller, lighter, and less cumbersome than a netbook.
Then, along came the tablet. To be fair--the tablet is not a direct evolution of the smartphone, but tablets like the Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab are built on the same iOS and Android mobile operating systems that power their smartphone kin. Tablets like the Dell Streak blur the line even further by coming in a size that is only incrementally larger than a smartphone, and even includes mobile phone functionality.
One problem that still exists, though, is trying to keep all of your gadgets and computing platforms in sync. You might add a new contact on your smartphone, or create a new calendar event on your tablet, or take notes from a client meeting on your PC--and you need that information to be synced to the other devices so you have access to it no matter where you are, or which computing platform you happen to be using.
New mobile computing devices like the Motorola Atrix 4G, and the upcoming BlackBerry PlayBook continue the evolution of mobile computing, and take the integration of the different platforms a step further with a hybrid approach--using the smartphone as the brain that powers a more versatile model.
The Atrix 4G has a notebook dock. Without the Atrix 4G, the dock is just a shell with a keyboard and a display. But, when you connect the Atrix 4G it becomes a notebook of sorts--letting you work with your smartphone using a full keyboard and display.
As smartphones become even more powerful--with dual-core and eventually quad-core processors that make them even more like PCs that fit in your pocket--this model could gain traction and become the next evolution of mobile computing. Instead of having three (or more) devices for different mobile computing needs that you have to try to keep in sync, you will have one mobile computing device versatile enough to work how you need it in different mobile computing situations.
Ultimately, though, mobile computing has outgrown the netbook. It may have started as a way to take your PC with you, but it has evolved into a completely different way of staying connected. Farewell, netbook. We hardly knew you.