R.I.P. Netbook, the Underpowered, Slow, Clunky Future of Computing.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Jan. 2 2013 5:58 PM

Apple Killed the Netbook

And we’re all better off for the demise of the $400 future of computing.

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That’s why Apple couldn’t make a netbook. Netbooks were a market-share play—at $300 to $400 each, PC manufacturers were making very little on each one sold, so the only way to succeed was to get a huge slice of the market. Apple had no interest in playing that game; why spend time and effort selling something you wouldn’t make any money on?

It’s worth noting that Apple wasn’t the only PC maker that was worried about netbooks’ low margins. Many other PC manufacturers recognized that netbooks would ruin them, too. In 2008, the New York Times published a piece citing computer makers’ rising anxiety about netbooks. One industry analyst told the paper, “When I talk to PC vendors, the No. 1 question I get is, how do I compete with these netbooks when what we really want to do is sell PCs that cost a lot more money?”

An executive at Fujitsu, one of the world’s largest PC companies, told the Times that the firm wouldn’t be making a netbook because it couldn’t see a way to make money from them: “We’re sitting on the sidelines not because we’re lazy. We’re sitting on the sidelines because even if this category takes off, and we get our piece of the pie, it doesn’t add up,” Paul Moore, senior director of mobile product management for Fujitsu, told the Times. “It’s a product that essentially has no margin.”

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But even though there was no money in them, most PC makers joined the netbook parade. That Times article was published in July 2008; in October, Fujitsu launched its first netbook. Soon everyone else except Apple had one.

I’m sure I’ll hear from a number of readers who’ll claim to have loved their netbooks. You’ll say that while there may have been terrible netbooks on the market, your particular one was just right for you. And you’ll further argue that however terrible netbooks were, they were certainly better than the iPad and other tablets, on which you can’t do any “real work.” (I know you!)

But I don’t believe you. Most research suggests that while people were entranced with the idea of netbooks, they hated them in reality. A 2009 survey by the market research firm NPD showed that most people bought netbooks thinking they would work as a substitute to a standard laptop—and they became very disappointed when they realized that netbooks weren’t powerful enough to be used that way. In other words, netbooks were marketed as being for “real work,” but they turned out to be unsuited for most computing tasks.

The iPad, meanwhile, never had any pretensions of functioning as a replacement for a laptop. It was always sold as something different: a truly mobile gadget meant for non-office computing. Everything about it, from its processor to its battery to its operating system, was designed specifically for delivering a better mobile experience. Unlike a netbook, the iPad turns on instantly, it has a 10-hour battery life, and it can find your location on a map. Unlike a netbook, it has an App Store that overflows with software designed for its screen.

True, the iPad, unlike the netbook, doesn’t come with a keyboard or a pointing device. But you can buy a keyboard for it—and if you want a pointing device and Windows, you buy Microsoft’s Surface or one of the many “hybrid” laptop/tablet Windows 8 machines now hitting the market. Or, if you want a “real” computer, you can buy a MacBook Air (which now goes for $1,000) or any of its Windows “ultrabook” clones.

See what I’m saying? Even if you don’t use the iPad or the Air and have no interest in ever buying an Apple product, pretty much every mobile computer you can buy today was inspired by the two devices that Apple ginned up to fight netbooks. In netbooks’ demise, Apple emerged victorious—but so did the rest of the PC industry, and so did we users.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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