Apple's iPad kills the netbook; will MacBook Air devour notebooks next?

Apple [AAPL] and its iPad have destroyed the netbook industry with Acer and Asus ending production of the things. It's an inflection point as we enter the Post-PC age -- now get ready for next-gen MacBooks to devour what's left.

[ABOVE: A few relevant moments from Steve Jobs' 2010 iPad launch.]

Best in show

Netbooks were designed to be affordable low-power devices for casual and mobile use. They were companion devices that weren't intended to achieve anything other than support a user who also owned a "proper" PC.

Unfortunately these machines just weren't that good.

"The problem is netbooks aren't better at anything. They're slow, they have low quality displays, they're just cheap PCs," said Apple's Steve Jobs when launching the iPad. Speaking to investors in 2008, he stated: "We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk. Our DNA will not let us do that."

Signs and portents pointing to the demise of the netbook appeared almost as soon as the iPad first shipped:

  • Way back in 2010, analyst Katy Huberty pointed out that iPad sales were destroying those of netbooks. Huberty's claims were rejected at the time, but the diagnosis proved correct.
  • Apple is the world's biggest PC vendor, if you include iPad sales within the mix -- Canalys in July declared the global PC industry grew last year, with iPad sales accounting for 22 percent (or more) of PC sales.
  • The BYOD trend has seen a mass movement toward iPads for switched-on, connected mobile workers across a range of industries. IDC predicts 170 million tablets will be shipped in 2013, 60 percent of which will be smaller tablets like the iPad mini.
  • Microsoft's Gavriella Schuster confirmed netbook sales were being "cannibalized" by the iPad in November 2010.

Netbook a no-no

Most vendors have quietly ended netbook production since the iPad's launch. They attempted to take a slice of the tablet market, but failed, with most early iPad competitors ending up in landfill after being returned by disappointed retailers. Today Apple dominates the sector with Amazon and Samsung fighting over the scraps.

Netbook competitors were unable to compete with the sophisticated technological execution of the iPad; equally they couldn’t meet the design and usability challenge wielded at the top end of the market by Apple's MacBook Air. Asus withdrew from the netbook market at the end of last year. Acer ended production of these devices shortly before Asus made its decision.

Apple's approach to mobile has allowed it to dominate the sector -- from the iPad to the iPhone, from the iPod touch to the MacBook Air. These products cater for a wide range of user needs and are all connected together by its iCloud service. This means most users now enjoy an increasingly seamless experience whichever device they choose to use. With iPads available from just $499 (now $329 if you include the iPad mini), netbook makers were unable to offer similarly compelling devices at an acceptable price.

Apple kills the netbook

[ABOVE: A netbook. Looks like a PC. Just not as good.]

Notebooks are next

It isn't just netbooks which face the Apple threat. The company's future plans for its MacBook range should see significant improvements as new products hit market in June this year. Apple is expected to reduce prices for the MacBook Air, and to adopt a "new processor platform", according to Digitimes.

That report claims:

"Apple has issued requests for quotations (RFQ) to Taiwan-based supply chain makers for the revision of several notebook models including MacBook Pro and MacBook Air series in June 2013, causing ultrabook vendors to be concerned, according to supply chain makers."

Apple's bet is simple. It intends translating hundreds of millions of happy iPad and iPhone users into Mac users, offering them the kind of full weight mobile computing experience they can't find elsewhere.

Not only this, but the OS X user interface's inclusion of elements borrowed from iOS makes a move to the Mac easier and ultimately more satisfying than a Windows 8 PC.

Meanwhile, iPad sales continue to cannibalize the Windows PC market.

"Although notebook vendors have been trying to fight the onslaught from the tablet sector with the launch of an array of ultrabooks or ultra-like models, the price gap between notebooks and tablets will continue to push consumers to buying tablets, said the sources," according to Digitimes.

PC makers face a second threat: Android. Tablets powered by Google's OS are also cannibalizing mobile PC sales.

With Apple and Android ascendant, notebook vendors must by now be seriously concerned at the weakness of Windows 8 upgrade sales. They only need to look to the destruction of the netbook market to get a glimpse of what may now take place in the laptop sector, as Apple's plan to dominate all mobile markets slowly matures.

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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