The Netbook Isn’t Dead — It’s Just Resting

There's still a market for light, small, cheap laptops

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Two models brandish Eee PCs at an Asus press conference in October 2008, back when netbooks were at least sort of glamorous

Remember netbooks? Back in their golden age — which was around four years ago — I wrote about them a lot.

I liked having them around as a computing option and found it amusing that the same PC industry that was selling them by the million didn’t seem to like them very much. At the time, industry experts kept confidently predicting the imminent demise of netbooks — but consumers ignored the experts and kept on buying ’em.

Still, it’s obvious that netbooks peaked a long time ago. They lost whatever sex appeal they had the moment the iPad was announced, and it’s been years since anyone announced an interesting one.

And now Charles Arthur of the Guardian is saying netbooks are dead, dead, dead — which seems like a reasonable assessment, since the industry has stopped making them. Including Asus, which invented the category with its Eee PC line. I hadn’t realized until I read Arthur’s story that the company had announced that the Eee PC wouldn’t make it into 2013; it’s the closest thing imaginable to an official end of the netbook era.

And yet …

Even though I liked netbooks, I said all along that it was silly to think about the netbook as a category of computing device unto itself. A netbook was merely a lightweight notebook with a smallish screen and a low price tag. It’s not like lightweight notebooks, small screens and low price points will go away, even if nobody makes a computer that’s officially called a netbook.

And in a way, it’s amazing that netbooks as we knew them did as well as they did, since the industry always had a passive-aggressive attitude toward the whole idea. One of the best ones was Lenovo’s IdeaPad S12 — a proto-Ultrabook that had a relatively spacious 12.1-in. screen and a roomy-enough keyboard. But Intel supposedly responded to the S12’s introduction not by congratulating Lenovo for building a nice computer but by punishing the company by denying it chip discounts. (Bigger-screen netbooks were too competitive with laptops based on chips, which delivered a better profit margin to Intel.)

Microsoft, too, pressured PC manufacturers not to make netbooks too good, specswise, since their low price points forced the company into supplying Windows at a lower price than it liked.

Thanks in part to Intel and Microsoft’s meddling, most netbooks were at least a tad underpowered and chintzy, almost by definition. Today, everybody in the industry is more excited by Ultrabooks (and variants like HP’s Sleekbooks), in part because they’re posher machines than netbooks and sell at higher prices with more room for a profit margin.

But just watch. The smallest Ultrabooks are similar in size to the largest netbooks, and at some point their prices will tumble into the sub-$500 territory where most netbooks lived. Once that happens, the netbook will be back — whether or not anyone in the PC business admits it.