The netbook craze is huge. It seems that every day someone else introduces a new netbook. What makes them different from the UMPC or the Tablet PC classes of computers that never seemed to take off? Why does this different class of PC succeed when other classes have failed? I spoke it over with an Associate Editor of Gadgetell.com, Robert Nelson, and here is what we thought:
1. Form Factor
Netbooks are incredibly light and small devices that can be easily carried around. This small form-factor has helped in its rapid acceptance by computer users.
Netbooks did not try to reinvent the standard notebook computer experience. The UMPC and Tablet PC classes introduced new form factors in computing. Some UMPCs had split keyboards on the left and right of the screen. Some Tablet PCs dropped the keyboard altogether in favor a slate design. Most netbooks are just shrunken versions of an already familiar form factor.
The small device also plays upon something humans cannot get around. Smaller versions of things are “cute.” It is something innate in humans — it is why people adore young animals like puppies and kittens. Smaller versions of larger items attract people.
Note, that it is not just the smallness of objects — people do not like rats, which are much smaller than puppies. UMPCs were small computers, but they were introducing an unfamiliar form factor. The netbook is a “cute” notebook computer, which catches the eye of the people.
These netbooks are cheap! For about the cost of a snazzy cell phone or a few tanks of gas, you could get a portable computer. One of the largest problems with the UMPC was the price-point. Why go for a small screen and weird keyboard device when you could just go get a real laptop for the same price?
The same was true of Tablet PCs. They were too expensive when compared to computers with similar specs. Netbooks are so low-cost that picking one up does not feel like a major purchase at all.
3. Simplicity (PDA-ness)
The portable computing platform was revolutionized with the introduction of the first Palm Pilot. The concept behind the Pilot was simplicity. Instead of overloading the PDA with too many features, the first Palm Pilots were electronic datebooks that worked with your computer.
Similarly, netbooks are built to do little more than Internet browsing and maybe the occasional word processing. They are not meant to replace desktops. They are not even meant to replace some notebook computers. The netbook is an incredibly simple device and that is a key to its success.
People are ready to accept a new kind of device now. When the UMPC came out, no one could figure out why this was needed. It took some time, but Tablet PCs have found a market in industrial and medical fields.
There was a time when desktop computers were major purchases. Then there was a time where laptop computers were only for the person who needed an on-the-go machine. Now, getting a laptop for a student or getting a desktop is no different than getting a video game or DVD. It is not a common occurrence, but it is no longer a major event.
People are ready to accept the concept of a “second PC” or “third PC” in their home. Wireless networks are now commonplace in suburbia. A “home computer” is in place in most tech-savvy homes. Picking up a PC for the living room does not seem so crazy now.
Internet maturity and web apps finally let these almost-thin clients succeed without needing your own home server. There are a bevy of applications that run within a web browser. In some cases, that is all the power or applications you will need for small tasks.
Microsoft has nothing to do with this form factor. In fact, netbooks often become crippled when Vista is installed. Netbooks were not designed for Vista, but in fairness, some netbooks handle XP fine.
A quick look at history shows that Microsoft co-developed the UMPC platform with Intel and others. Microsoft also put together a special version of Windows XP and many applications are written to take advantage of XP Tablet PC Edition.
Microsoft firmly believed in both classes of PCs and the two never really took off. This is not to say that Microsoft does not back winners. After all, the vast majority of computers run Microsoft software. In some respects, Microsoft was ahead of its time by backing ultra-portable PCs that people would carry around everywhere. It just so happens that the netbooks were the real way to get those devices into the hands of consumers.