Opinion: Questioning the netbook phenomenon

Can any computer maker, even Apple, ignore the trend?

It's human nature to get on the bandwagon of a "good thing." Take the screaming hype that is the netbook phenomenon, for example. Although it's clear the netbook trend is real, my hype meter wagged over into the "tilt" field when I read these words from Dan Nystedt of the IDG News Service:

"The network will truly become the computer, as Sun Microsystems used to say. Or in more modern terms, the Cloud for consumers will have arrived."

Nystedt was writing to express surprise at Apple COO Tim Cook's recent negative comments about netbooks. Like Nystedt, I don't think any computer manufacturer can afford to ignore the netbook trend. I've even suggested in the past that Apple deliver a low-cost, netbook-style Mac.

I also can't agree with Cook that the netbook experience is voided by what he described as "cramped keyboards, terrible software, junky hardware, very small screens, and just not a consumer experience" during a quarterly financial conference call on Wednesday. On the other hand, Cook's apparent condemnation of all existing netbooks does not mean that Apple is pooh-poohing the entire idea. Macworld's editor in chief, Jason Snell, makes this point better than I could in his article Apple to netbooks: Drop dead.

Snell writes: "Apple ... often runs down its competitors in a category before introducing its own game-changing product in that category." I've found that statement to be true as well.

If you buy into that interpretation, Cook's comments imply that Apple's netbook product, if it has one, is likely to be one of two things:

1.) An iPhone 3.0 software-based, iPhone-derivative tablet-like device that Apple does not at all position as a netbook, but that is likely to be half smartphone, half small form-factor computer. Apple's incredible success with its iPhone App Store has to be factored into the advantage that such a device would have.

2.) A lower-cost Mac with limitations that keep it from cutting into other Mac sales, but with a very intriguing, game-changing hardware design. More than likely, this option isn't close to launch.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is also positioning Windows 7 for netbooks, and the message seems to be clear to me. It's aimed at netbook manufacturers: You want to use Windows 7 on netbooks? We're going to use some of our power at generating negative press to outmuscle you into paying the full notebook freight for Windows 7 instead of the lesser price for reduced-functionality Windows 7. Microsoft isn't targeting this at netbook buyers. If it were, it wouldn't be sending the message now. It would wait and quietly slip it under the rug at Windows 7 launch time.

I bet Microsoft wins this game, too. If your company requires Microsoft Office, and it's thinking about buying netbooks, it needs Windows XP or Windows 7 on those netbooks. Either way, limiting simultaneous apps to three is an IT help desk headache waiting to bloom.

But the netbook phenomenon isn't really about Apple or Microsoft. At least, not yet. And this is the kicker: Many people love the small form-factor, lightweight design of netbooks. Such computers are appealing to a wide range of potential buyers, everything from casual computer users to on-the-go and even advanced business people (as travel computers). And there can be no denying that more and more enterprises are considering netbooks because of their need to reduce costs in a tough economy.

That brings me to the main point: It's really no secret why the netbook phenomenon got kicked into high gear about six months ago. It's about money and the most severe economic downturn in most people's lifetimes. Take that out of the equation, and netbooks would still be on the rise, but they would be considered by far fewer potential customers. So a big part of the netbook hype cycle was fueled by the money savings. Nothing wrong with that. But I question whether it's a long-term phenomenon.

What's going to happen when the economy comes back? It probably won't happen overnight, since many people's financial change in perspective will linger long after the downturn becomes history. But the strongest motivator -- saving money -- will no longer be there. And the focus on netbooks may start to dissipate at that point. The desire to save money is not enough of a demographic on which to hang a rapidly growing product category.

Cook has a point, too. The cramped keyboards, limited OSs and apps, constrained specs, and small screens may get old for at least some netbook users over time. Less is more only to a point. And then it just becomes, well, less.

The single most important factor in the future of notebooks, however, may not be the economy or even the netbook OS platforms like Android, Linux and Windows 7. The future of the product category probably hinges on hardware innovation yet to arrive. It's an immature product category. If hardware makers can move beyond making very small portable computers cheaply with well considered trade-offs, and can transition into creating hardware that becomes more or less indispensable, that's what will make the trend stick.

The obvious direction for that kind of innovation would be convergence of netbooks with smartphones. That's the direction that many Android-based netbooks are likely to head. But could mobile convergence divide the netbook category in two? I think that's quite possible. Netbook buyers are not all highly mobile, nor are they all interested in paying the monthly subscription fees for 3G data services.

I don't have the answers. No one does. But the questions are fascinating enough on their own.

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