The last two netbook vendors standing, Acer and Asus, have both announced they’ve produced their last netbook. So they’re joining the Playstation 2 in the land of the digital dinosaurs, though I suspect more people will miss the 12-year-old game console than the netbook. The Guardian has an analysis, but basically they blame the emergence of tablets, and the increased cost of producing netbooks with Windows.
I bought an HP Mini 110 about three years ago, and it was fine for what it was: a low-end, very basic machine for basic tasks. It runs Office 2003 perfectly fine, though I’d be afraid to try Office 2007 or (especially) 2010 on it. And it’s fine for most web browsing. But it has its limits. If it’s possible to hook it up to a 720p television and get it to produce a 1366×768 display, I haven’t figured out how to do it yet.
And I suspect most people didn’t use netbooks like I do. In fact, my posts about speeding up an HP Mini 110 were, for a time, some of the most popular things I ever wrote, though the traffic on those pages is dropping.
I think, in the end, they were a niche market. When the One Laptop Per Child first appeared, a lot of people wanted one for themselves. Then Asus obliged by making a similar unit, loading Linux on it and pricing it at a low $199. They became a sensation; I ran into hardcore garage sale addicts who bought netbooks and mobile data plans so they could use them to investigate sales and rumors they heard about when they were on the road on Saturdays.
For that use, a tablet works just as well, and it’s more portable.
I’m sure some people still want tiny laptops with real (if undersized) keyboards, but it’s probably mostly people like me, who are fine with picking up a used netbook and fixing it if need be, or grabbing a Google Chromebook and adapting it to do whatever we want to do with it.
But tablets are a bigger deal than netbooks ever were. I’ve had more than one person tell me they bought a tablet for someone who doesn’t like computers, and they loved the tablet. I can understand that; sitting down at a desk or even the kitchen table and using a computer feels like sitting at the office, while you can use a tablet while you lounge on the couch or an easy chair. Since they were just different enough that people didn’t expect to be able to run Microsoft Office and whatever this week’s hottest 3D shooter game is, designers could rethink the experience without having to worry about backward compatibility, and they reinvigorated a market that was stagnant except for upgraders. And it worked. Sitting with a tablet running the BBC news app feels nearly as natural as flipping through the pages of a news magazine, but the information is much more current.
So the netbook was an experiment that turned out not to be exactly what everyone wanted. But that’s OK. Eventually the industry figured it out.