Netbooks, Laptops, Smartphones

I'm going to talk about Netbooks and laptops.  Please don't let this shock you, I know it's very unusual here.

On the 7/10 podcast Bonnie and I made one of our asides to discuss Netbooks and how it was relevant to Google's Chrome OS.  I noted Netbooks do have a niche as what a Laptop is is changing, so I wanted to go a bit further on this since it will have affects on the market.

I used to be a non-believer in Netbooks – they seemed to be stripped down laptops.  Then when Bonnie got one and found it useful, I began to see they served a vital niche, and now I have my own, I really get it.  The importance of netbooks is not overshadowed by Laptops – it compliments them.

It's often said the last few years that Laptops are the new desktops – they have enough power for most people (beyond super hardcore gamers, programmers, and artists).  They're mobile so you need less of a space commitment.  Of course, they're also portable.

The problem is that when you replace desktops with laptops one thing DOES NOT change – namely you just spent over $2000 on a computer.  That's a big investment.  Your laptop may be portable, but it's also expensive.

This is where I see Netbooks coming in in one case – they're cheap, convenient, and even more portable.  With brutal honesty, spending an extra $300 on a netbook (and Dell has had bargain bundles with laptops) gives you something far less pricey if you loose it, something even more portable, and an emergency backup system.  A Netbook provides a lot of services in one small and cheap package.

And, as noted, you have less reason to haul your expensive laptop around.

I also expect Netbooks to grow as they can be "laptops for those who don't need a lot" – simple, cheap, convenient, and have most services people need.  If Laptops are the new Desktops, and indeed they seem to be, then just like Desktops they may have more power than some people need or would pay for.  Netbooks come in here as well – and for a casual internet user, a cheap netbook can be their only computer.

So, no, Netbooks are not going away.  I see them as a very viable market, midrange between the Laptop and the cell phone, and a definite area of growth.  The Laptop has come into its own – what's next?

I expect this move to continue and affect software development on two grounds:

  1. Some installed software will not work on some netbooks, but as they become more prominent (and people assess their needs), slimmer or slimmed-down versions of programs may become bigger.
  2. Software as a Service (SaaS) and web apps will need to keep netbooks in mind as well (as well as lower-powered laptops).  In most cases this isn't a problem.  Google's Chrome OS sounds like this is definitely one of their focuses.

The more I look it over, the more I'd put Laptop/Netbook companies on your target list for good companies – a lot of them are making some good technology.  This could be a good market for devs, hardware people, marketers, and of course community mods – I suspect smart netbook companies could build very good customer contact sites and communities.

So, a few more thoughts on Laptops, Netbooks, and geeky careers for you.

– Steven Savage