Little Big Things: The Rise and Fall of the Netbook
Has it really been five years? It seems like only four years, or three years. A long time ago, I planned to write a blog post about the photographic applications of netbooks. It would have been called The Photographic Applications of Netbooks, or something like that. Netbooks: Wazoo Yazoo Ba-zam-zah Ping. The problem is that the article would have been tiny. The very first netbooks were almost completely useless as photographic tools; later netbooks were more useful, but not as useful as a full-sized laptop or a small subnotebook. There's your article, right there. Yes, there are nuances. I could have stretched it out for thousands of words, dozens of posts, months and months. They do that on tech review sites, you know? They stretch things out. There's only so much you can say about the latest gadget in the limited time available, so they pad the articles out.
The thing is, history overtook me. It turned out that netbooks were not be the Messiah after all. They came, and went. I will miss them. There was a time when the sun shone out of their pert little bottoms, roughly late 2007 to early 2009. It was the first two years of Gordon Brown's fascinating period as Prime Minister, and people needed something to cheer them up. The economic catastrophe was starting to bite, companies were downsizing, and people woke up to the fact that they were paying off enormous loans at £197 a month, but the interest was such that they were only really paying off £98.50 of the loan, and they had (calculator) divide those months by twelve (calculator) oh Christ that's sixteen years. Plus the mobile phone contract, the gym membership. Sixteen years of sitting on the couch that the loan had paid for, staring balefully at the big television (that the loan had also paid for (and that was now worth a fraction of the price)), and all the other things as well. And on a faraway beach the people at the bank laughed and laughed.
Into this financial maelstrom snuggled the netbook. They were small and cheap, and had a bunch of novel features that appealed to hipsters such as you and I, and eventually to the man and woman in the supermarket. They had a solid state drive when such a thing was very novel. The used Linux as an operating system, which was righteous. If Linux was a person, it would have sheltered members of the Baader-Meinhof gang from the authorities. Netbooks generated a huge wave of goodwill, and for a time it felt mean to criticise them. Mean and misguided, because they were good at what they did and did not pretend to be anything more. They were book-sized computers that could surf the internet. Compared to conventional laptops they were technically limited but much easier to use on the train, and they were one-quarter, nay one-fifth the price. They were so much cheaper that they made conventional laptops seem a bit of a swizz.
But it was not to last. Over time - and we're talking about a year, roughly - they grew in size, until they were not-quite laptops that were too large to carry around all the time, and not functional enough to do all the things you wanted. And the screen was still too small. And they ran Windows XP, which was both a blessing and a curse. It meant you could run Photoshop, if you wanted, but it also meant that the cost went up, and then the technology stagnated, for reasons I shall explain later on.
It's often opined that tablets did them in, but the reality is more complicated than that. Originally, it was the other way around; Netbooks easily saw off the Ultra-Mobile PC tablets of 2006 and 2007, and made them look overpriced and old-hat. By the time the iPad was launched, in 2010, netbooks had already lost their lustre. They had sold out to the man, become enveloped by the establishment.
As of mid-2012 they are just faces in the crowd, like you or I. Still out there. It's possible that the launch of Windows 8 rekindle the love, but I wouldn't bet on it. EDIT: No, Windows 8 had no effect. In the dying days of 2012 Acer announced that they had given up on Netbooks, closely following Asus, and so presumably 2013 will see the last of the current breed. Will small subnotebooks continue? Probably, they just won't be called netbooks.
Still, I begin.
I have one of the original Eee 701s. Here it is, on the right, sitting on top of a conventional notebook (a Thinkpad X60):
I bought it second-hand a couple of years after netbooks came onto the scene, because I needed something small and light for the train, or on holiday, and I prefer it when the implacable demon of depreciation attacks some other sucker. For a lark I decided to dig it out and use it again recently - on the train, for the previous post - because the bag I had was already heavy enough. It had a Mamiya RB67 in it and some film. The original operating system has long been replaced with Lubuntu, which is sweet on the 701's limited hardware, and as a travel companion the 701 still does the job. Unlike a tablet the hinged screen blocks out the other train passengers. Okay, it doesn't really block them out. But it erects a psychological barrier, which is harder to do with a tablet. The small, dim screen and limited battery life are just as limiting as they were in 2007, but I could easily stuff the 701 into a bag without thinking too hard about how it would fit, because the design is robust and there are no moving parts. Later models increased the screen size and beefed up the battery, although in the process they become heavier and more fragile. And why not carry a slightly larger, full-sized laptop? This is a theme that appears throughout this document. Whether by accident or design the original netbooks carved out a brand new niche in the computing market, but it was a narrow niche.
No, that's not a tautology. Niches don't have to be narrow. A niche is "a recess in a wall for a statue, comma, vase" according to Chambers. No mention of narrowness. A niche can be very short and extremely broad. Or it can be enormous. NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building is essentially a giant niche built for the Saturn V rocket, which was super-terrifically huge. Dirigible hangars are vast and have great big niches for dirigibles inside them. And dirigibles have huge niches inside them for helium gas. Never mind that NASA doesn't assemble rockets any more. They can store office equipment inside the Vehicle Assembly Building. Or they could build Segways in there, at which point the name would make sense again. 'cause it's not a vehicle assembly building if no-one assembles vehicles inside it, is it? It's just "Assembly Building". And if no-one assembles anything, it's just... "Building". And you can't have NASA's (Pause) Building, can you? Can you?
Can you? It has to be a Something Building, otherwise how can you tell it apart from the other buildings that haven't got a name? Why don't you answer?
In essence, netbooks were tiny sub-notebook PCs optimised for looking at the internet, although they ran grown-up operating systems and could be used exactly as a conventional laptop computer. This set them apart from the handheld PDAs that had been popular a few years earlier. Furthermore they were cheap, and this is the thing. Tiny functional sub-notebook PCs were nothing new in 2007, but the sub-sub notebooks of an earlier age had been priced sky-high. Sony's chic Vaio C1 was launched for around £1,500 in the UK in 1999, and successive models were just as expensive. The Toshiba Libretto - which was even smaller and cuter than the C1 - was slightly cheaper but not by much. Both machines ran Windows 98 and had decent but not exceptional specification by the standards of the time. They remained on sale throughout the first dot-com boom and then faded away, although the Libretto was enduringly popular in Japan, where tiny PCs were much bigger news than they were in the West. To be fair, it was a lot harder to make a small, functional PC in 1999 than it was in 2007, so the high price didn't seem too ridiculous.
The first wave of palmtops and sub-notebooks ended up as hobby projects for Linux fans who wanted to see if they could install other Linux distributions on them, after which they were presumably shoved into a closet somewhere, along with old Zip drives and US Robotics modems. Tablet computers existed way back then, in fact by 1999 tablets were a kind of retro joke, just like lightpens or 3D cinema, periodically revived in order to fail again. An idea that had missed the boat. In 1992 the very first IBM ThinkPad was a pad, believe it or not. That's why they called them ThinkPads. The ThinkPad 700T was a 386SX-based tablet machine with a 20mb solid state drive and built-in internet connectivity, although this took the form of a 2400 bps modem. Very slow by modern standards, but in 1992 the internet looked like this. And porn looked like this (warning: very rude).
Yes, kids, your parents used to trade mocked-up images of Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis having sex with each other. Who? They were... Remember Star Trek? No, not the one with James Kirk. Or the other one with James Kirk. There was another Star Trek. In the 80s, 90s. The first two seasons were rubbish but it picked up from that point onwards, once Riker had grown his beard and they brought Dr Crusher back. "The Best of Both Worlds", "Yesterday's Enterprise". The one where Picard was made to live on a planet, and he grew old, even though it only took a few hours in our time. "Metathesis is one of the most common of pronunciation errors, sir." In those days you bought television series on VHS tapes, two episodes per tape, it cost a fortune and took up a huge amount of space. No-one liked videotape, it was clunky even when it was new.
Back to modems. Nowadays we're floating in The Cloud and mobile internet access is all over the place, in fact it's hard to imagine life without it. It's horrible, in fact. I get nervous when I don't have internet access. What to do? How can I check the weather? It might have changed. Back in 1998 the only clouds people associated with computing were clouds of marijuana smoke, which didn't carry data very well. And the only tablets were ecstasy tablets. And so on. Without access to The Cloud the tiny notebooks of the time were very expensive technical novelties. Add in the power supply, the DVD or Zip drive, and suddenly the total package wasn't much smaller than a far more functional laptop. And without a DVD drive you weren't going to be watching films on those tiny machines, because the hard drives were too small. And even if they weren't, you would have to rip the film yourself, because you certainly wouldn't download it, unless you were trying to prove a point. Yeah, you could have done it, if you had a T1 connection or lots of time. But nobody of sound mind bothered. The average Joe was thrilled just to download a bunch of 3mb MP3s. Ordinary people like you or I couldn't really justify the expense of the early mini-notebooks, and professionals generally shunned them. They had no obvious raison d'etre.
The C1 still looks good, I admit. Not Apple-chic, mind. Back in 1998 Apple was still in the process of regaining its mojo. The iMac was new, the portables were called PowerBooks, and they were still made of blobby black plastic. Totally different age, really. Starbucks had only launched in the UK in 1998, so where were you going to take your PowerBook? Hmm? Wimpy? You'd get thrown out. Apple was launching new products, but it meant nothing unless the rest of the world had caught up with them. The same applied to the early tiny laptops, which failed because the infrastructure necessary to give them meaning had not yet arrived. The idea of a tiny machine that could surf the internet, do a bit of work, play music and so forth was seductive, but the world was not yet ready for them. For all the hype about mobile internet - and there was a lot of hype - the reality circa 1999 was tethering a clunky old mobile phone to a laptop via flakey infrared, at great expense.
In 1999 the kind of people who would later buy Netbooks instead went for Handspring Visors. Remember them? They were Palm Pilots, but underground, edgy, transparent. The Psion Series 5, there's another one. I'm not going to attempt to write a history of the miniature PC 1980-2012; it would take forever and be boring. When you're writing about computer history you're dealing in months, not years. You're dealing in moods. The newspapers don't capture moods, you really had to be there. Sitting in a cafe or a makeshift office somewhere in London, surfing the internet, not being there; being everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It was the first social movement based around being somewhere else. The revolutionary phase of widespread internet adoption was over so quickly and became so pervasive that there is very little to remember it by. The straits broached; the sea rushed in; no man ever walked the Mediterranean desert. It has always been a sea. Only the birds remember. The immortal gulls, that saw Knossos in its prime.
Discipline, that's what I lack. I am capable of great insight, but my mind is apt to wander. Yet without the wandering I would miss the beauty. Let it be said that this is the only eulogy for the netbook that (a) correctly defines the word "niche" (b) makes reference to Star Trek: The Next Generation (c) leaves you with memories of ancient Greece. When some men saw the sea for the first time they saw the end of their journey. Other men saw journeys to come. They saw journeys to new lands, where the living was easier and the women were better-looking. And there were more of them and they had a thing for sailors.
Small computers didn't go away during the first half of the 00s, but they were never a mass-market phenomenon. For most people a proper laptop was just about right; keyboard large enough to type on, screen large enough to see, expansion ports, etc. If you really wanted something smaller there was the Nokia Communicator or Windows CE-based palmtops, such as the HP Jornada (for example). And bear in mind that laptops were expensive then, all of them, in a way hard to understand now. Judging by this handy scan, you would have paid almost £4,000 in 1998 for a Pentium 166mhz-based ThinkPad 760XL, presumably less from an advert in the back of PC World. £4,000 was a lot of money in 1998. Even by 2003 laptops still ran from $2,000-4,000. Until the mid to late 2000s laptops were still status symbols and specialised tools for businesspeople, lecturers, travelling salesmen and so forth; stereotypically, computer students and the children of rich parents ended up with beat-up second-hand models. If a Hollywood movie wanted to show that a character was a high-earning young executive, it showed her using a laptop, stereotypically an Apple G3 Powerbook. Not so much because Hollywood was in love with Apple, but just because the design was distinctive. Buying a laptop just to go and sit in the local cafe and surf the internet was the kind of thing that city folks did. With their lattes. Four bucks for a coffee? It'll never take off.
There was however one exception, the $100 Laptop. This had been devised during the first dot-com boom, and was a long time coming. The cost estimate proved to be too optimistic (they eventually sold for $200 or so) and the machine became stuck in development hell for several years, during which time the problem of fast and mobile internet access was neatly solved by a combination of DSL, wi-fi, and 3G broadband. The irony is that the dot-com boom had produced a bunch of companies that relied on the coming ubiquity of fast and highly-mobile internet access - Boo.com was the poster child, with its data-heavy fashion portfolios - and had crashed just as the technology was gaining traction. Cable and ADSL rolled out in the States in 1998, a couple of years later in the UK. In parallel with this, 802.11 wi-fi basestations started popping up in ordinary homes, if only so that people could surf the internet on an old laptop whilst sitting on the toilet or in the privacy of their own attic. Within a short time the newspapers were waffling on about wardriving, remember that? With the chalk marks on the floor? Mobile internet still involved tethering (with Bluetooth, this time) and was a bother, but relatively simple 3G dongles eventually arrived in 2007, at which point there was no excuse not to be on the internet. Unless you didn't have coverage in your area. Perhaps you were one of those people who lived outside London, for example.
The $100 Laptop was eventually launched in 2007 as the One Laptop Per Child, although you couldn't just buy one, you had to buy one and sponsor another one at the same price, which would supposedly be sent to a small child abroad. It was never aimed at the consumer market, but the concept was intriguing, the price point especially so. Everybody knew about it long before the machines were launched. If the OLPC people could sell a functional laptop for $200 that had enough muscle to surf the internet and write notes, why should anybody have to pay Toshiba $1,500 for a bulky laptop that did only a little bit more? Why did anybody have to pay anybody $1,500 for a laptop anyway? Lots of people just wanted something they could surf the internet on whilst sitting in the cafe like the city folk of a few years before. There was a market there. Toshiba, Apple, the biggies were happy to rake in profits from their expensive laptops; Intel had their own OLPC competitor, the Classmate, but this was also aimed at the educational market. Erstwhile PDA and smartphone manufacturer Palm had come up with the Foleo, an odd little dead-end that was cancelled in September 2007, just before it was due to be launched. The Foleo resembled a Netbook but ran a smartphone-style set of custom applications; it was a kind of keyboard tablet, if that makes sense. In the run-up to release it attracted a fair amount of derision in the press - $499 was a lot for a big smartphone - although in retrospect it was a case of right idea, wrong pussy. Instead, a hungry Taiwanese company with nothing much to lose decided to dole out some of the delicious and moist cake that the market craved, and in this instance the cake was not a lie. It was a small computer called the Eee. In fact the Eee didn't look much like a cake, it actually resembled a... big mint, or something. A Kendal Mint Cake, which isn't technically a cake.
Portal came out in 2007, see. I'm setting the scene, taking you back to 2007. It's like I Love 2007. You're upset that Eli had to die, but it's not a problem because Episode Three will be out real soon now and no doubt the G-Man will bring Eli back to life, or something. Perhaps there will be an underwater level in which Alyx wears a skin-tight swimsuit. Perhaps. The Eee seemed to come out of nowhere. Asus already had a range of solid but utterly anonymous laptops, which sold well enough but no-one cared about them. Spin-off ASRock was well-known for its good cheap motherboards and graphics cards and so on, but only if you were into PC components. Asus really had nothing to lose, so they decided to shoot for the moon. The Eee concept was devised by the company's charismatic CEO, Jonney Shih, with the help of Jerry Shen, who was in charge of the actual design work. The intention was to boost the company's share of the laptop market - never mind margins, just get the name out - by making a low-cost device built around Intel's new low-power Silverthorne chip, targeting non-computery people, so it had to be cheap and small and robust. As it turned out the Eee reached the marketplace a year or so before Silverthorne, which had in the meantime been renamed Atom.
On a technological level the Eee was a clever repackaging of existing components, thrown together during a breakneck six-month development programme. The 7" screen was a standard part from in-car satnavs. The CPU was a 900mhz Celeron M353, underclocked to 630mhz. The same processor also appeared in the Intel Classmate and the Samsung Q1, a $1,000 tablet computer which was derided by PC Magazine for not having a keyboard or an optical drive. How times have changed. The Q1 was part of the Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC) initiative, which was supposed to be the next big thing in mobile computing. Microsoft and Intel had spent a lot of time and money trying to bring UMPC to the masses - it was a kind of standard for expensive fast small computers - but in retrospect it was a lot of same old, same old. When Netbooks arrived, consumers had a choice between spending $1,000 on a UMPC or $299 on a slightly slower Netbook, and they chose the latter.
The hard drive was actually two or four 1gb flash chips arranged in a RAID array, soldered to the motherboard, which made upgrading tricky. In practice you were supposed to use the SD card slot for data storage, with the solid state drive holding the operating system and its applications. Despite its modest spec the Eee's SSD could boot into a usable condition at an impressive speed. The idea of sticking the operating system and applications on a fast SSD and storing files on a different drive (albeit a conventional hard drive rather than another SSD) was cutting edge in 2007, and is nowadays very popular. SSDs are generally much faster than traditional hard drives, although they're still very expensive for mass data storage. Later iterations of the Eee expanded the SSD up to 8gb, and the second generation dropped the SSD entirely in favour of conventional 2.5" hard drives, which took some of the futuristic polish off the netbook concept. With a couple of exceptions, mind; the early 900 16G had a 16gb SSD, the later 1000 had an 8gb SSD, and some models (including the 1000) had a second, larger, slower SSD for data storage. SSDs are of course popular with smartphones and tablets and Apple laptops and so forth. Will they be the future for desktop PCs, or will we transition away from physical media entirely? Once data prices come down it will be just as easy to stream things from the internet as it will to navigate to your music directory. And far easier than having to stand up, and walk over to the bookshelf and find the right disc and... oh, I can't be bothered.
In some respects the Asus Eee had a bit of the ZX Spectrum about it; a small, neat case wrapped around a bunch of readily-available chips, although thankfully Asus used a set of standard ports and a conventional - albeit very small - keyboard. In fact it was unusually well-connected for such a small machine, with three full-sized USB ports, a built-in SD card slot, a VGA monitor D-plug, audio input and output, ethernet. That's three more USB ports and one more SD card slot than most modern tablets. I'm looking at you Google, with your Nexus 7 content consumption device. Apple has an excuse, you don't, you're supposed to be the good guys. Still, although the Eee was designed foremost as a portable machine, you could in theory plug in a mouse, keyboard, external VGA monitor and printer, or external hard drive, for example, and use it as a desktop replacement, and in fact Asus eventually sold the screenless, keyboardless Eee Box for just that purpose.
Journalists called the Eee Box a Nettop, which is one of those neologisms that doesn't exist outside the world of journalism. Confusingly, it had been used back in 2000 to refer to internet-on-your-TV, which went nowhere fast. It's worth pointing out that Netbook wasn't new, either. In 1999 plucky British PDA manufacturer Psion launched a tiny sub-notebook called the netBook(sic), which was the sequel to the company's Series 5 PDA. The Series 5 was popular with mobile professionals, and has a powerfully nostalgic appeal for a sub-generation of IT and media types, on account of its clever tiny keyboard and overall functionality. Unfortunately it was increasingly squeezed by Windows and Windows CE-based PDAs, and Psion discontinued their PDA range in the early 2000s. I have vague memories of seeing one, but at the time I felt that a Palm Pilot would be smaller and handier for notes, and a slightly larger laptop would be more useful for writing things.
The Eee name itself apparently stood for Easy to Work / Easy to Play / Easy to Learn, or something like that. It was snappy. A little bit reminiscent of Nintendo's Wii, which had been launched the previous year. There are worse names.
Physically the Eee was a neat piece of industrial design. The clean, minimalist case was available in black or white, and looked best in white. It was drafted by Asus' Jimmy Chu, and was almost more Apple than Apple. Chu had previously designed the Asus U1F, a conventional sub-notebook that sold for over $1,000, and for the Eee he essentially scaled the U1F down, keeping some of the design cues - the hinge design and hinge-mounted battery pack, for example. This article has a photograph of the two sitting next to each other, and it's uncanny how much the U1F looks like the later 900-series Eees. They were good hinges, by the way. Good stiff hinges. Almost overengineered. I know from personal experience that it's a doddle to hold the original Eee in one hand whilst standing up on a moving train. The screen stays rigidly erect, it doesn't flop.
There were a few obvious cut corners in the Eee's design - the power button was flimsy plastic, the single-piece mouse button likewise - but it felt a lot more solid than a machine costing a couple of hundred pounds. On an emotional level it was cute without being trivial, modern without looking too geeky, attractive enough for a woman but not too pansy for a man. In 2012 people still find it attractive.
It had some problems. For a tiny, frugal machine it was surprisingly hot and power-hungry. Reviewers pointed to a stock battery life of three hours, a little bit shorter than contemporary laptops, but the Eee had an underclocked processor and no moving parts, and it should have run forever. Mine lasts for about ninety minutes, although in fairness it is very old. There was also an issue with the onboard storage, although it wasn't specific to the Eee. SSDs have a finite lifespan. The individual memory blocks can only be operated on a certain number of times before they get stuck. Somewhere in the tens to hundreds of thousands to millions of read-write cycles, depending on the drive. The Eee's drive was apparently on the lower end of this figure, although thanks to clever wear-levelling algorithms that spread the load evenly across free space the drive would need to pass several dozen terabytes of data before it starts to fail. That's a lot of web surfing.
In practice the Eee was priced at such a low level that no-one really minded the limited life, and in the long run most will end up being put away in the attic long before the drive starts to fail. Given that they were all sold in 2007, and assuming an average level of use since then, it'll be interesting to see if there's a Great Year of the Dying Eees, sometime in 2019 (say), when they start to reach the end of the road at the same time. As of July 2012 good-quality used examples of the 701 seem to go for about £60 or so on eBay, depending on history and whether it has the charger or not. Actually replacing the SSD involves soldering and is probably not feasible any more unless you can find some of the original parts.
Looking at eBay it seems that lots ended up with broken screens, presumably from being tossed around a lot by kids or generally abused. The listings generally read "MINT / FULL WORKING ORDER / NO SCREEN" or something like that. Mine is about five years old and still works, having had XP, Ubuntu Netbook Edition and finally Lubuntu installed on it. The hinge is still stiff, the battery still holds a charge. The other thing that put some people off was the screen, or rather the big black bezel around the screen. This housed the speakers. When the machine was turned off, the bezel made it look as if it had a larger screen, which came across as a bit underhand. A bit of a con. Later Eee designs got rid of the bezel and expanded the screen to fill the space.
What else? The keys were tiny, and the right shift key was small and in an odd place (outboard the up arrow). The fan was noisy, and in the end I unplugged mine. I haven't had any problems without it. The screen could have been larger. Beyond that, the Eee was a good example of how market placement and expectation management can transform a product's reception. It was a small big thing, rather than a big small thing; a supremely functional (and cheap) smartphone complement rather than a hobbled laptop replacement.
Asus was taken aback by the Eee's popularity. The first batch went on sale in Taiwan in October 2007 and sold out thirty minutes later. At least in Europe they were rare as hen's teeth for a year or so, and sold out as fast as retailers could get hold of them. There was even a website, eeestock, that aggregated stock listings. The 2gb model sold poorly and was the modern-day equivalent of the old 16kb ZX Spectrum; everybody wanted the 4gb model. Asus sold almost four million of the things over the next twelve months, although that figure included sales of the later 900-series models as well. That was twice as many units as Apple had sold Macintoshes, desktops and laptops (together), but of course Apple made a lot more from each of their units. And in the same period Apple sold ten million iPods and over five million iPhones.
For a few months Asus had the field to itself, but competition soon arrived. Acer launched the conceptually similar but Atom-powered Aspire One in mid-2008, Dell launched the Inspiron Mini later in the year, and Via also released their NanoBook specification, a kind of modern-day MSX standard that nobody remembers nowadays. By this time Netbook technology had moved on a bit. The original 7" models were shoved aside by 8.5-10" Netbooks, which were more of the same but with larger screens, and there was a general shift away from solid state drives. The Asus 900 series did away with the 700's bezel but generally retained the SSD, and continued to sell well, although it was actually outsold by the cheaper and slightly faster Aspire One. The price crept up, to over £300 in the UK, which was still cheaper than a brand-new laptop but not by much. Netbooks had briefly been called Small, Cheap Computers, but as time went on and their functionality expanded the term became a bit of a joke. A wistful, slightly sad joke.
There was another thing. The original Asus Eee ran a customised version of Xandros, a Linux distribution. Not the most popular Linux distribution, but it was the thought that counted. Asus was one of us. At least one person at Asus had heard of Linux, and he had managed to convince the moneymen to fund his dream. The other Netbook manufacturers followed suit - Acer used Linpus, MCI had SUSE, the suits at Dell had Ubuntu - and if 2007 was not going to be the Year of the Linux Desktop it looked as if Linux might infiltrate society another way, with Netbooks. But it was not to be, it slowly faded away. The first problem was that Asus and Acer etc hadn't budgeted for a Linux boffin to sit on the phones and sort out any problems users might encounter. Instead, their official advice in case of something going wrong with the OS was for the laptop to be sent back, which led to a raft of news stories about how Linux Netbooks were returned to the vendors in record numbers equals bad. And to be fair I remember the dialogue boxes sometimes disappearing off the edge of the screen, because although the shell and the pre-installed applications had been optimised for Netbook screens, any applications you installed yourself hadn't. Yes, XP had the same problem; and so did Linux. The sad thing is that Ubuntu Netbook Edition ran perfectly on my 701, but this came out a year or so after Linux Netbooks had faded away. As I write these words I have Lubuntu on my 701, and again it runs without a hitch, except that the power button sometimes works, sometimes doesn't, and it seems to have trouble detecting the 3Mobile dongle unless I turn the built-in wireless on and off again.
Although there were concerns that Windows XP's use of swap space might wear out the SSD, the original Eee seemed to have no major problems running XP, and by the end of 2008 XP was becoming the dominant netbook operating system (going from a market share of 10% of netbooks to 96% over the course of that year, according to these figures, which of course might be nonsense). To be fair, the mass market didn't buy netbooks so that they could run Linux, they bought netbooks because they wanted a little desktop PC that they could carry around and surf the internet with and use just like their home PC, which ran XP. Asus and Dell continued to offer Linux editions of their netbooks for years afterwards, although they didn't push them, you couldn't buy them in the shops, and they were barely listed on their websites.
Linux fans instead turned their hopes of conquest to Smartbooks, but again they were to be cruelly disappointed. Smartbooks were Netbook and sub-Netbook devices designed around a low-power ARM chip, which was incapable of running Windows, and would therefore have used Linux instead. The whole initiative was devised by telecommunications giant Qualcomm, who immediately found themselves in a comical trademark dispute with Smartbook AG, a tiny German laptop vendor who wanted sole use of the word Smartbook (the legal case dragged on long after Smartbooks had bitten the dust). Several major manufacturers - Sharp, Toshiba, Compaq - signed up to develop Smartbooks, and spent a lot of time and money devising and showing prototypes, but the whole initiative came to nothing, seemingly without a single model reaching the market. It took so long to develop software for the ARM chip - Adobe Flash was particularly problematic - that the Netbook market came and went, and tablets were suddenly the new thing. The only concrete result was the Google Chromebook, which had originally been touted as an ARM-powered Smartbook, although it eventually shipped with an Intel Atom. The Chromebook does run Linux although no-one seriously expects that it will propel Linux to greater glory. No-one speaks of Smartbooks any more.
As a footnote, modern-day researchers estimate that the Chromebook has $322 worth of components in it, against a sale price of $500 or so. Its spec is similar to a mid-period Eee, albeit that three years have passed. It would be interesting to know if Asus made much money from the original Eee. I suspect that the margins were very thin. The company certainly benefited from the publicity. Although they laid off staff in 2009, their Transformer tablet-with-a-keyboard is very popular, and the recent Google Nexus 7 is actually an Asus design. It's a testament to the residual affection that the original Eee generated that I feel quite happy Asus is still around, even though it's a big impersonal company. N.b. this article is not being sponsored by anyone, I bought all this stuff myself.
XP on Netbooks. Much electronic ink was spilled over this matter. "Microsoft killed the Ur-Netbook", they say, "by forcing manufacturers to jack up the price to pay for XP licences, and jack up the specifications to run it, and then jack up the specifications to run Windows 7 and Office until the machine wasn't a Netbook any more". They.
The parallel issue was that Microsoft had bigger things on its mind than XP. The company's new desktop operating system during the early netbook years was Windows Vista - Windows Valdez, as I like to call it - which had been hyped to heaven for several years. Unfortunately it was late; over-complicated; expensive; fussy about the hardware it ran on; a resource hog; etc. As a desktop operating system it attracted a great of opprobrium, and it was clearly a non-starter for netbooks, which generally didn't have enough graphics horsepower to run the full Vista Aero desktop comfortably. As a product it met with a tepid response; as an icon it has become symptomatic of a bloated age. People were more than happy to buy XP-based netbooks in large quantities, but Microsoft didn't want to sell them any more, because XP was the mad uncle in the attic, and yet four, five, twenty, thirty million sales of the old XP was better than no sales of anything, and so Microsoft came up with a deal. They would offer a low-cost version of the operating system if Netbook manufacturers promised not to put it on their best laptops. More of this later. Were there quiet words behind the scenes about That Damned Linux Thing? That's an interesting thought you have there.
On a personal level I am neutral in this matter. I accept that Linux fans are different to the rest of us, and without different people we would all be the same. You just have to watch them, that's all. Because no matter what you do, when you run Linux you're only one error message away from having to use a text editor to manually edit fstab. And there will be fifteen different suggestions from people who don't speak English very well on how to do this, and none of them will work. And that's a scientific fact. For Linux people the operating system isn't a thing that goes on in the background whilst you do your real work, it's the be-all and end-all.
I mean, some of them are nice people in real life. But, well, Dennis Nilsen didn't kill everybody he met, if you see what I mean. And the people he killed, he only killed them once, and then right at the end of their lives. There were days, weeks when he didn't kill anybody at all. And he was outwardly pleasant. He got away with it for so long because he existed on the margins of society. Preying on outcasts, people who were not missed when they went missing. I'm not saying that Linux is a primal, evil force that drives ordinary people to commit unspeakable acts so that it might feed on fresh souls, but (rolls eyes).
At this point I broke for part two - and a month later I decided to merge the two parts together. Take this opportunity to have a drink, or pee, or something.
Little Big Things: The Rise and Fall of the Netbook, Part Two
In part one, Netbooks emerged from nowhere to save the world from the rest of the computer market. But, like David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, they succumbed to a mixture of demons, both internal and external. As we re-enter the narrative, Arthur Dent has discovered a curious green stain on the sole of his left shoe. What could it be?
From 2008 onwards the Netbook pupated and matured, but whereas butterflies are a lot more pleasing to the eye than maggots, the newer Netbooks lost a little bit of their charm. They weren't as ugly as maggots, mind. That wasn't a very good metaphor. They went from being very attractive butterflies to being just ordinarily attractive butterflies. Asus replaced the original 701 with the 900-series. The 900 was a sensible upgrade, with more storage and a larger screen, 8.9" instead of 7". Against it, the battery was the same, it still used a Celeron, and the price had shot up to over £300. This was still cheaper than a full-sized laptop, but the gap was smaller. And laptops weren't as expensive as they used to be; £650 was fast becoming the new £899.
Nonetheless the 900 sold well, and the general configuration was shared with a wave of Netbooks from other manufacturers. I've mentioned the Aspire One already. HP showed unusual corporate flexibility by launching their own Netbook range in 2008, initially with the anonymous 2133 and later in the year with the more popular Mini 1000, and Dell followed suit for the Christmas market with the Mini 9. The Mini 9 was popular with the modding community, not least because Dell posted complete tear-down instructions on their website. Dell also sold the Mini 9 as the Vostro A90, which was exactly the same machine but with a black paint job, aimed at businesspeople on the go. One chap turned his into a tablet PC with a touchscreen - a drastic modification that must have seemed at least a little bit silly a year later, when the iPad was launched. Most of these models used 8gb or 16gb SSDs, but the proportion with traditional hard drives steadily increased until, by the end of 2009, SSDs had almost faded from the scene entirely.
The newer netbooks were suddenly all over the place. The first 701s I ever saw were in the PC shops on Tottenham Court Road, but within eighteen months they were being sold in HMV, in supermarkets. Where once they had an air of underground chic, they were now thoroughly mainstream products, and proved to be very popular indeed, transforming Asus in particular from an anonymous component maker into a thing. In terms of global market share, by mid-2008 Asus was almost neck-and-neck with Toshiba, at fifth place.
An Asus Eee 701, one of the original Netbooks, sitting on top an Asus 1005HA, the thing it became.
The company's growth was so strong - from 4.1% of the worldwide notebook market in 2007 to 8.6% a year later - that they leapfrogged Sony, Apple, and Fujitsu, all of whom had been ahead of Asus in 2007. Netbook sales as a whole surged throughout 2008, topping fourteen million units, which was doubly impressive given that the PC market was otherwise struggling in the global recession.* By that time Asus no longer had the field to itself, however. The company never quite managed to join the global top five, and by 2009 they were being comprehensively beaten by Acer, although they did better in Western Europe (where they were still beaten by Acer, though). The company seemed to consistently sell six-seven million netbooks a year, it's just that the competition sold more.
* In the anguished words of Arstechnica's reporter, "it's somehow sadly ironic that a product category that was originally invented for so-called "emerging markets" is being snapped up by cash-strapped Americans."
And netbooks weren't just a passing fad. Despite a dearth of genuinely new models, the market continued to surge in 2009, with sales reaching 30m units. The strong growth was yet again impressive; every other sector of the market had shrunk. The overall laptop market had shrunk, too - netbooks only made up a minority of shipments - but without netbooks the market would have shrunk even more. No doubt the men of HP, Dell, Acer and so forth breathed sighs of relief that the netbook market existed.
I remember the time well; UMPCs had never really taken off and the market needed a good shake-up, and netbooks punched above their weight. They caught the mood. They were modest, frugal, at a time when people were starting to get sick of bling, sick of McMansions and big off-roaders. Netbooks had an air of righteousness, and they seemed to catch The Man on the hop. I've already mentioned the abortive ARM-powered Smartbook revolution-that-wasn't, but in the same timeframe Intel came up with a new thing called CULV, which sounded like a farming term for something unpleasant involving cows. It was a standard for small low-voltage laptops aimed at the premium market, and it met with a wave of indifference from manufacturers and the public alike. At the time, the MacBook Air dominated the premium laptop market, and no-one wanted to pay Apple prices for a PC. Intel eventually morphed the concept into the Ultrabook. History has not yet delivered its verdict on Ultrabooks. They come across as a strange mirror-image of the netbook; neither platform seemed to have a natural niche, but whereas the netbook convinced the common man that it was something he needed, the Ultrabook has so far struggled to pull off the same trick, and manufacturers have tarnished the concept by launching cut-price Ultrabooks with unimpressively small screen resolutions. Time will tell for the Ultrabook, but as of late 2012 the whole thing has an air of hubris.
Amidst their praise for Netbooks, DisplaySearch's top mobile computing prognosticator John F Jacobs sounded a note of caution. "The mini-note share of the notebook PC market has stabilized, and will remain at approximately 20% through 2011 before starting to erode". Why? "While mini-notes offer lower ASPs and are thinner and lighter than notebook PCs, the performance of larger notebook PCs continues to improve while prices continue to steadily decline, increasing the performance gap while narrowing the price gap." Which is more or less exactly what happened. Jacobs didn't factor in the modern tablet market - in 2008 people still remembered the old tablet market, which had never taken off - but apart from that he was absolutely correct. His prediction came to pass exactly as he predicted it. Often the "analysts" they have on the news come across as charlatans, the kind of pub bores who have an opinion on everything, but this man could literally see into the future. I hope he used his powers for good.
The Arstechnica report linked above expressed another opinion common at the time. "Apple's absence in the low-cost netbook space is causing the company to miss out on a red-hot growth market", said their writer. In 2008 Apple was unimpressed with the netbook. Steve Jobs famously didn't like them at all, but the harshest verdict was delivered by Tim Cook, who talked of "cramped keyboards, terrible software, junky hardware, very small screens ... not something we would put the Mac brand on." This was generally perceived as a bit head-in-the-sand, but Apple would say that, wouldn't they? Apple has always been all about high margins, and netbooks were volume products unless they were sold expensively, in which case they are unpopular products. And of course the company had its own netbook-killer waiting in the wings, in the form of the iPad. Was Steve Jobs jolted by the success of the netbook? Tablets had, after all, been tried before, and failed. Apple had tried tablets before, with the Newton Messagepad, which was famous for failing. But Steve Jobs hadn't had a go yet; the Messagepad was John Sculley's idea. If Steve Jobs was jolted he didn't show it. He wasn't one for being jolted.
There were other skeptical voices. I wasn't too keen, for a start, although I eventually bought one (second hand). Strip away the wave of euphoria, and the first bunch of netbooks were very limited. In a parallel universe where the Eee flopped badly no-one would have been surprised. The 7" screen was really too small, the whole thing felt non-standard, it was a bit kiddy, and the limited battery life was an uncomfortable surprise. It made the Eee a dicey proposition for long train rides, let alone flights, and although you could leave it in standby you couldn't leave it in standby for days on end because it had a habit of draining the battery even when it was turned off. And although it was small, it wasn't smartphone-small. You couldn't easily put one in your pocket unless you smeared both it and your pocket with a layer of grease and pushed really hard. And they weren't waterproof, so you couldn't guarantee that your greasy netbook - by now covered with pocket lint - would work. And your hand you be covered in grease. Ultimately that was the biggest problem. Greasy hands.
Asus in particular seemed to have trouble following up the 701 in a coherent way. Their original 700-series had a simple product line-up, consisting of the 2G model that had 2gb of storage and the 4G that had
And when the 1000-series came out, there was the 1000HD, the 1000H, the 1000HA, the 1000, the 1000HE... guess which one had the Celeron M? And then there was the 1008HA which had a built-in battery, and the 1005HA, which had a battery you could replace. And even then there were three separate versions of the 1005HA - the 1005HA-M, the 1005HA-B, the 1005HA-H, and the 1005HA-V, that's four versions, and each version had different hard drive and OS options. The HA-P had a faster processor than the HA-V, the HA-M was the same as the HA-V but with a matte screen, I think. Mine has a matte screen. A matte, 10.5" screen. By 2009, 2010, all Netbooks had 10.5" screens. The original tiny Linux SSD models were gone.
And in a sense the Netbook was already dead, because the new Netbooks weren't really Netbooks at all, they were sub-notebooks with slightly smaller screens. They ran Windows XP with a conventional hard drive and they were all the same.
The irony is that the New Netbooks, the New Non-Netbook Netbooks were far more capable than the original batch, and just generally better. The battery life was greatly expanded - six, seven hours if you were canny, far more useful than ninety minutes - and the display was large enough to play thumbnail-sized downloads of old MST3K episodes in the corner of the screen whilst surfing the internet at the same time. The processor was just fast enough to play hi-def video and the conventional hard drive was large enough to store lots of hi-def videos and photographs etc, which is still one of the netbook's killer apps - you can't backup a lot of digital photographs and video on a tablet. Almost none of the new netbooks came with Linux - Dell was the most notable hold-out - and you really had to hunt in order to buy the few that did. Of course, there was nothing to stop you ripping out the pre-installed Windows XP Home and replacing it with Ubuntu, but you'd already paid for XP, so why bother?
In fact you'd paid for XP twice over. Not just for the software, but for what Microsoft had compelled netbook manufacturers to do to their machines, in order to qualify for a reduced-price XP licence. At the time, Microsoft had been trying to kill off XP and transition to Vista, but Netbooks had thrown a small spanner into this monkey, because Vista wasn't an ideal fit for their modest spec, in fact it was a notorious hardware hog. Netbook manufacturers were perfectly happy to continue with XP. As indeed were the public, whose reaction to Vista can be summed up... you know that bit in A Clockwork Orange where they strap Alex into a chair, force his eyes open with metal hooks, and make him watch violent porn whilst feeding him drugs? He didn't look very happy, did he? And then he tries to touch the lady's bosoms but they make him sick and he throws up. So Microsoft came up with XP for ULCPCs, a new version of XP intended for Ultra-Low Cost PCs.
Or rather a new version of the XP licence. XP itself remained the same. The real difference was in Microsoft's licensing requirements. In order to sell their computers with an ULCPC licence, netbook manufacturers had to agree to limit their machines to a modest specification. No more than 1gb of memory as standard; 80gb hard drive (later relaxed to 160gb); no larger than 10.2" screen; CPU no faster than 2ghz. Rarely does Microsoft kow-tow to external factors, but in this case the kow-towing seems to have annoyed the company, which might explain the stingy 1gb limit, for example. XP ended up outlasting its supposed successor, and that must have smarted. You meddling kids!
The theory that Microsoft came up with a cut-price XP licence in order to see off Linux-based netbooks ignores the fact that Linux-based netbooks were already on their way out in 2008. Perhaps, if they had exploited their brief period of influence, and if the Linux machines had sold more strongly, netbook manufacturers could have told Microsoft to get stuffed. But they didn't. The unfortunate result of the XP ULCPC licence was that the second generation of netbooks were all very similar, and without room to grow the range stagnated. In fact, beyond the adoption of dual-core CPUs, the 10" models that Netbook manufacturers sold in late 2012 were not substantially more advanced than the class of late 2009.
When Windows 7 was launched, in 2009, it had a much more positive reception than Vista, but there was still controversy. The cheapest and most basic version - Starter - had a set of engineered-in limitations that seemed ridiculously mean. Users couldn't change the desktop background, for example, there was no multi-monitor support - a major boo-boo, given that Netbooks were popular mobile presentation machines - and it could run no more than three applications at once. This latter point provoked such opprobrium that Microsoft eventually backed down. Nowadays most Netbooks are shipped with Windows 7 Starter and I for one am glad that I bought mine when XP was around.
Price was more of an issue, too. The new Netbooks hovered around £300-400 or so, whilst conventional laptops had come down to price to such an extent that £500-600 would buy you a decent full-sized model; in the US the average sale price for a notebook PC (of all kinds) was $528 in 2009, a drop of almost one-quarter from 2008. And half that would buy you a faster, second-hand Core Duo model from a few years earlier. The Netbook was no longer a disposable, chuckable internet appliance that people could sling into a bag. It was too bulky, and you had to be careful because of the conventional hard drive. At the same time it wasn't a high-margin machine either, and a number of Netbook manufacturers became disillusioned with the concept. At least for the time being the units continued to sell in volume, even if the margins were poor. In 2009 the global PC market continued to struggle, and although sales were up, manufacturers had achieved this by slashing prices.
By the end of 2009 both Acer and Asus were selling netbooks in Walmart, and I remember from personal experience the local computer shops having netbook-only aisles, with Eees, and Aspire Ones; Samsung NC10s, MSI Winds, Lenovo IdeaPads, Dell Mini 10s, clones of the Via Nanobook that no-one wanted, and strange unbranded machines that came and went. Obviously not in the same shops, I'm trying to evoke an age, a far distant time. Netbooks had become commodities, the kind of thing that mum and dad might toss into the shopping trolley on a whim as they pushed it around Waitrose, looking for organic yoghurts. The price was such that mum and dad didn't feel guilty; they still remembered buying that digital camera for £800 on their credit card only a few years ago. £800! And they were still paying it off. Five megapixels, you could get mobile phones better than that.
There was another trend gathering pace at the time; people - young people, unattached people, trendy people - were using laptops as their main and only machine in increasing numbers, displacing sales of desktop computers. Where once laptops had been mobile counterparts to the desktop machine back at home - which did the *serious* work - they were becoming the flagship of the computing fleet, with a smartphone neatly occupying a kind of middle space as a little yacht or jetski. The mobile age that had been hyped back in 1999 had finally arrived; it happened during the gap between The White Stripes' first and last albums. All of a sudden people started wondering why they were paying for telephone landlines, when they could use their mobiles for everything instead. And wherever you went, you were at work.
The desktopification of the laptop naturally boosted sales of larger, more powerful laptops; if you were going to buy just one computer, and it was going to be a laptop, you wanted something with a decent-sized screen. You lusted after a 17" MacBook, not a Netbook, and I'm not just repeating the analysis I quoted from John F Jacobs earlier. I actually wrote this bit of the article before that bit, see. And it was true; throughout the Netbook age Apple sold a tonne of its new Intel-powered MacBooks, which were expensive and powerful. In 2008 Apple launched the MacBook Air, which was initially greeted with some scepticism - it was overpriced, they said, and pointless. Conventional wisdom held that Apple had misjudged the market, but nonetheless they continued to sell expensive laptops in large numbers, raking in vastly more profits than Asus and the other Netbook manufacturers. Not just in relative terms; Apple was one of the most profitable companies in the world, ending 2011 with cash reserves north of $70bn, more than the US government. The MacBook Air's physical design and pricing model was slavishly and extensively copied by other companies who wanted a piece of the same pie.
2009-10 was the high water mark. The Netbook had grown from hipsterism to the mainstream, but the big story of 2010 was of slowing growth in the Netbook sector, from nearly 80% the previous year to roughly 25%, with forecasts pointing to minus figures by the end of the year. In 2011 Dell quietly stopped selling Netbooks, and rumours were rife that Acer was about to do the same, although they ultimately held back. Nonetheless the market contracted by roughly 25% compared to the previous year. People still bought Netbooks; 30m were sold in 2011, a drop of around 10m from the previous year. But tablets had come from nowhere to sell over 60m units. Will tablet growth continue through 2012, 2013? Check back here in 2015 and I'll tell you.
That pretty much brings us to the present day. Amazon still has a Netbook section. The whole Ultrabook thing seems to have devolved into farce, as manufacturers burned by poor sales of expensive posh models are launching plastic-bodied not-quite-so-powerful 1368x768 models for $599 - not very ultra anything. The world holds its breath in anticipation of the tablet-optimised Windows 8, which has been met with controversy on account of its overhauled interface. Microsoft have announced that XP, Vista, and 7 users can upgrade to 8 for just $40, and it will be interesting to see if it breathes a new lease of life into older Netbooks. It's really aimed at touch-screen devices - Netbooks generally didn't have touchscreens - but on the other hand, ignoring the interface, it's supposed to be generally faster and more frugal than 7, so it might be worthwhile simply for its performance. As I say, check back with me in 2015.
EDIT: Of course, this was written in July 2012. As of the last day of 2012 the Netbook market looks to have finally given up the ghost. Acer has left the market. Asus' official Eee homepage is dead. The last Eee models ran Windows 7; Windows 8 wouldn't have worked on their 1024x600 screens. Amazon's Netbook section has been swamped with cheap no-name netbook clones running Android. Netbooks still exist, sort-of, they just call them mini-notebooks, so if you want a small laptop the market is hardly dead.
What Killed 'em Off?
We've already examined a couple of culprits; people looking for just one machine are more likely to buy a larger, faster laptop, and people looking for a cheap laptop are more likely to buy a cheap laptop, because cheap laptops now cost £400 instead of £900, and are much more functional than the cheap laptops of a few years ago.
One thing modern tablets inarguably have over netbooks - and the tablets and palmtops of the past - is an infrastructure. There is an app market that surrounds tablets and smartphones. Back in 2007 one of the most appealing things about netbooks was that they ran standard desktop applications using a mainstream desktop operating system. They had an infrastructure, all right; but it was the wrong infrastructure. On the positive side, they weren't restricted to the limited range of cut-down non-standard rubbish found on smartphones of the day. Many netbook owners only bothered with Internet Explorer and Word, but if you wanted to use DOSBox, or VirtualDub, or edit photographs, or look at the stars with Celestia, or the hundred and one other things people do with their PCs, you could. And you couldn't do that with a smartphone.
Things are very different now. The app market - whether Apple or Google or what-have-you, whether smartphone or tablet - has expanded massively. There are apps for everything, and it's a multi-billion-dollar concern. There's even an app version of Photoshop. It's not a patch on the desktop version, but it's fun. A lot more fun than trying to work with Photoshop on a netbook, I tell you. Netbooks were never distinct enough to attract a range of netbook-specific applications. There was never a Microsoft Office Netbook Edition, optimised for a small screen; you were expected to run proper PC applications, which were often an odd fit. As a consequence there was never a netbook-specific killer app. In terms of applications the netbook encouraged codependency rather than transcendence.
Office was a particularly interesting case. The full-whack version of Office was workable on a netbook, but you had the problem of editing portrait-orientation documents on a widescreen display that had a vertical resolution of only 600 pixels. That was Windows 3.1 territory. I'm talking 1993. Shakespeare's Sister. Not a great year. Ironically, although tablets are pooh-poohed as unsuitable for productivity applications, their portrait-orientation 1280x800 screens are far more suited to that task than a netbook screen.
Meanwhile an army of talented coders were turning their busy little fingers to the tablet and smartphone app market. It can only improve and expand in the future, to the point where people will wonder why they bother with Windows and OSX. No doubt this is why Microsoft has decided to turn Windows into a mobile platform; it is the future of the mass market. There's still a stereotype that mobile apps are just shallow, trivial things for shallow, trivial people, just as there was once a stereotype that Japanese products were shoddy and second-class. Over time the laughter ceased. If there had been a netbook-specific app market, the machines might still be trendy; but it was not to be. They had the same fundamental problem as the British film industry; simultaneously too close and too far from Hollywood.
I mean, yes, obviously Netbooks had the entire PC application market, which is huge. But the applications that keep the PC market vibrant - Avid, Photoshop, Office, Ableton, the two Maxes, VMWare, the thing you use at work, the list is huge - generally aren't a natural fit for netbooks. And imagine you're a non-computer type and you have just bought a netbook, with Windows 7's desktop staring at you. And because it's Windows 7 Starter you can't make the desktop look nicer, which angers you. How do you get new apps? How do you get Angry Birds? Where's the App Store? What's good? What do I do?
Perhaps Windows 8 will alleviate some of this confusion. In theory a netbook running Android would benefit from the Android app market, and there is a project that lets you do this. However it's a bit hacky and not the kind of thing the mass audience is likely to try. Google's Chromebook is conceptually similar, but not very popular, and in any case Google wants you to buy an Android tablet, and Apple wants you to buy a tablet, too, and a netbook screen is in a non-standard orientation for apps, anyway. I can't see the Android netbook making a splash any time soon.
Why do I still use a laptop, anyway? Tablets are fine as far as they go, but they're primarily content consumption devices. Hush. I'm not dismissing them. You can create tonnes of stuff with a tablet. But you can create more stuff with a laptop. Different stuff. And I need to create more stuff, because I'd be just one of the little people otherwise. I need an unlimited, flexible creation device. That's what computers have always been to me. Unlimited creation devices. Paper and pen plus. Mind-amps. If I had tried to generate this article on a tablet I wouldn't have got very far before giving up; I wouldn't have tried. Not just because of the typing and the editing, but the research. I need a proper keyboard, a big screen, lighting-fast Google and dozens upon dozens of tabs that I can switch between rapidly, plus Photoshop to edit the pictures.
I might have used a tablet to creation something else, something uniquely tablet-y; a new creative device brings with it new means of creation, new means of expression. I'm sure there are lots of things you can do with tablets - off the top of my head you could give a hundred people a tablet and train them to play as a tablet orchestra, or you could attach the tablet to the front of your face and use the screen as a substitute face, etc - but this article isn't one of them. Or you could use the tablet as a kind of cat platform, that would confuse the little bastards. Put a person in a room lined with tablets, and make them think that they're inside The Matrix. Make a bridge across the Thames out of tablets, and when people look down they see sharks, or Boris Johnson in an wetsuit. That kind of thing. Put one in your boxer shorts, so that when you unbutton your jeans people see Boris Johnson's face leaping out at them.
But imagine if Microsoft had been on the ball, and Vista had been a stripped-down, lean, resource-frugal OS that scaled gracefully to fit a netbook display screen. Imagine if Microsoft had found its mojo instead of losing it so spectacularly. Imagine that Microsoft had written a specific netbook port of Office; that Adobe had found a way to cramp the basics of Photoshop onto a netbook screen; that there was a netbook-optimised version of Ableton Live, etc and so forth. They would probably have insisted that netbooks sell for £899, but humour me. As it turned out none of this happened. Users had to struggle with applications that were written for a taller, higher-resolution screens, using an operating system that ached for 2gb+ of memory and a faster processor that they were not allowed to have. The perception was that netbooks were not sufficiently differentiated from conventional laptops to warrant the investment in a separate ecosystem. To be fair, the apparently seamless compatibility of netbooks with pre-existing Windows applications drove sales of the devices in 2009, but this seamlessness turned out to something of a chimera. The new computer owners who bought them didn't care about compatibility with DOSBox et al. They just wanted Angry Birds and Facebook.
Another factor. Manufacturers didn't particularly want them. The success of the original Eee was something of a fluke. In a parallel world it would have sold a few tens of thousands of units to kids and hipsters and that would be that. In a booming economy there might have been a few netbooks, but the big news of 2008 would have been the rise of Intel and Microsoft's tablet initiative, of Smartbooks and CULV machines and proto-Ultrabooks and so on. And above them all would stride the Palm Foleo, selling millions upon millions of units and carving out a brand-new wound in the dying hide of the PC beast.
As an ongoing concern the netbook's low price meant the potential for high volumes, which is handy for manufacturers who want to expand their market share, less interesting for manufacturers who want to make a huge wad of cash. More market share equals more space on the shop floors, more brand recognition, a nice slot in the top five, even if it means you have to go hungry to do it. The netbook arrived at a time when the PC market was slumping, and manufacturers were glad of anything that showed strong growth; netbooks were one bright ray of sunshine in a cloudy sky that had frogs coming out of it. When conditions improved, and consumers proved willing to spend more cash again, the netbook no longer had a reason to be. Asus took every opportunity to move its Eee range upmarket, but found itself caught in a paradox; Microsoft's licensing requirements set a limit on netbook performance, but a full-whack XP license plus a faster processor and more memory would have resulted in netbooks that were no cheaper than a laptop. And if there was one thing that netbooks had demonstrated - and that Ultrabooks are currently demonstrating - people don't want to pay a fortune for a small computer that doesn't have an Apple badge.
And, yes, Tablets, and Ultrabooks, and Smartphones, the whole shebang. Give me £250 today, point me at a large supermarket; would I still buy a netbook? Or a Google Nexus 7, for example, with a hundred pounds left over? Truth be told I would instead spend some of the money on a second-hand Lenovo Thinkpad X60 in really good condition, which is what I did. The X60, X61(s) are great; they were launched in 2006, just after IBM had sold the Thinkpad range to Lenovo, so they're still built like tanks, but they have Core (2) Duos and run faster than modern netbooks, in a form factor that's not much bigger. And they have old-fashioned 4:3 screens, which is a good thing if you're doing work.
Still, I'm not the mainstream. I'm considerably wiser and more reflective, for example. Much more pragmatic. My needs - and lusts - are greater. If you just want something to read on the move, a netbook doesn't make much sense. A Kindle, or small tablet is easier to carry around, and doesn't get in the way. On the London Underground, for example, you absolutely need something to look at, otherwise you might make eye contact with the people across the aisle, which would be horrible. I used to use a paperback; now a Kindle can fill the same role. A netbook would be a terrible choice for the tube, because it attracts attention. You don't want to attract attention on the tube.
Content consumption device sounds horrible, but a book is just a vehicle for content, and no-one criticises books for it. Social interaction is all about content consumption. And food consumption. When I go out for a meal, I don't bring a set of steak knives and a blender, do I? Instead, I just bring my mouth, and something to read in case I get bored, and my laptop, which I sit on the table like a big black cockroach. If you want to consume content, a tablet is superb. More superb than a smartphone, which is just slightly too small; more superb than a netbook, which has a big flappy keyboard and takes ages to turn on and isn't really an appliance.
The big story of 2011-2012 was of how the tablet market had got high on Bath Salts and eaten the face right off the Netbook. It seems more likely to me that the tablet market was less fussy about the faces it ate; it must surely have nibbled chunks from the smartphone and portable games console markets as well. There doesn't appear to have been any solid research in this field, but in the UK, uptake of Nintendo's new 3DS and Sony's Playstation Vita handheld consoles lagged behind that of their predecessors; perhaps I'm getting old, but I never felt much of a buzz from their imminent launch, whereas the newspapers are full of Angry Birds, and "casual games". It looks as if Sega's decision way back in 2001 to concentrate on games development and ignore hardware might not have been the dismal failure it seemed at the time. Smartphones continue to sell in huge numbers, I admit, but given that people seem to rarely use them to actually make phone calls, I have to wonder why. Presumably they're still popular for tethering a tablet via wi-fi. In a bright beautiful future where a man can pull out his tablet and go on the internet without worrying about multiple data plans and data caps and so forth, wither the smartphone?
It will no doubt become historical record that the iPad killed off the Netbook, but it will be too simple. Lots of things killed off the netbook; and it's not really dead, anyway, because several million are still sold each year. And the netbooks of today are not the netbooks of 2007; the thing that died was not the thing that was born.
And the computing world has changed in the last five years. What reason is there for a small, cheap computer that runs Windows applications, in an age when Windows no longer seems the unstoppable juggernaut it once was? The netbook grew from small, cheap, Linux-powered beginnings into a device that saved the Windows laptop market in 2008 and 2009; as we move into an age when smartphones and tablets sell in much greater quantities than conventional computers, when Windows is becoming a child-friendly tablet OS, the netbook might well be remembered as the last successful go at making ordinary people buy an old-fashioned general-purpose computer, descended from the DOS-based machines of yore.
Version 2, 31 December 2012