Last year, netbooks were the hottest topic in tech. Today, new netbook introductions are met with a resounding yawn. Nobody cares about netbooks anymore. But is the netbook really "dead"?
The truth is that the netbook never really existed. I'm sorry, but it's true. There's no such thing as a netbook.
The Netbook Mirage
Pundits (not me -- those other pundits) will tell you that a combination of small size, low price, weak processor and non-standard operating system conspire to differentiate a netbook from a laptop.
That seemed to make sense back in late 2007. The first ASUS Eee PC defined this new genre of mobile computer. The screen and keyboard was way too small. The price was shockingly low. The processor was a puny Celeron chip. And it ran a special version of Linux, which featured giant icons and other semi-user friendly features.
But now that the whole netbook thing has played out, we can see that none of those elements differentiates. The truth is that netbooks are nothing more than tiny laptops.
Yes, they're small. They're about the same size as the HP OmniBook 300 I bought 15 years ago. Tiny screens and cramped keyboards are nothing new.
Yes, they're cheap. But they were only slightly ahead of the Moore's Law pricing trajectory that normal-size laptops were on. Now you can buy 15- or 17-inch laptops for less than $450. Sure, you can buy a netbook for less than that, but you can also buy one for more. Pricing overlaps. Netbook and laptop pricing is a matter of degree, not kind.
Let's be honest. Cheapness was the single factor that jolted the so-called netbook category into the stratosphere. If full-size laptops were as cheap in late 2007 and early 2008 as they are today, laptops would have sold just as well -- or better.
The idea that low-powered microprocessors are something new is a bad joke. Processors get more powerful with each new generation. Using slow chips does not a paradigm shift make. Yes, I know that the Intel Atom family is new and sophisticated. So what? It's an x86 processor designed to run exactly the same operating systems and applications as most other x86 processors.
And the special version of Linux? Ha! That was discarded by the masses as soon as Microsoft started playing ball on Windows XP pricing and availability.
Netbooks started out feeling kinda sorta different. But over time, they've gravitated toward laptop normalcy. Their screen sizes are getting bigger. Their OS changed from custom Linux to standard XP. Their processors are getting more powerful. And meanwhile, the price of laptops is dropping to meet netbook prices.
The difference between a netbook and a laptop is purely size and marketing mumbo jumbo.
Besides, the categorization of electronic devices is always based on usage models, not specs. People use netbooks just like they use laptops (albeit with unusual discomfort).
The netbook is, was and will always be a marketing mirage conjured up to drive sales.
The good news is that the true netbook concept -- the device the marketers told us netbooks were supposed to be -- is still in our future.
As in next year.
The Real "Netbook" Is Called a "Smartbook"
The original category label for what we now call the netbook was the ultraportable. The marketing geniuses didn't like that word because it implied (accurately) that a netbook was just a small laptop, and therefore nothing new.
So they changed it to "netbook" to suggest a new usage model. The idea was that you would use your laptop for desktop, PC-like computing tasks, but use your netbook for doing cloud-based tasks. You needed both.
Now that the word "netbook" has been squandered on tiny laptops, it's no longer available for the coming generation of devices accurately described by the label. So the category label has become "smartbook."
Get used to it. A year from now, everybody will be talking about smartbooks, and nobody will even remember the n-word.
Unlike the netbook, which is built on an x86 architecture, the first wave of smartbooks will run on the embedded ARM architecture, which is associated these days not with PCs, but with cell phones, GPS gadgets, handheld gaming systems and so on.