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Best Buy choice revisited: iPad or hybrid

While market research shows the iPad impacting Netbook sales, some future product will inevitably cannibalize the iPad.

Now that it's clear Apple's iPad is encroaching to some degree on Netbook sales, this raises questions about which product is going to put a brake on iPad sales.

First, let's state up front that Netbooks are here to stay. A tidy 70 million Netbooks have shipped to date and they're only getting better: vastly improved battery life and now--finally--dual-core Atom processors, give the Netbook a needed boost in performance.

Will Netbook/tablet hybrids emerge as serious iPad rivals?
Will Netbook/tablet hybrids emerge as serious iPad rivals? James Martin/CNET

That said, these tiny laptops received their first dose of real competition from the smaller, lighter iPad earlier this year, one of the reasons the category's growth is trending downward, as Gartner explained in a paragraph devoted to the iPad's cannibalization of Netbooks in a press release back in July.

But the iPad is also overdue for a response from rivals. Like the Netbook, it has had a computing category--in this case, consumer tablets--pretty much unto itself so far. That will change later this year and in 2011 when a wave of new tablets breaks.

One of the more interesting challenges to the iPad is the hybrid tablet/Netbook. A Dell executive flourished the 10-inch Dell Inspiron Duo on Tuesday at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. Looking very much like a tablet in its slate configuration and no different than most Netbooks in its keyboard-equipped clamshell mode, the Inspiron Duo promises Windows 7-based productivity--a claim the iPad certainly can't make. Dave Zavelson, a marketing executive at Dell, said it would ship later this year and promised mobile broadband too, mentioning WiMax in particular.

Other obvious upsides include Flash compatibility (which I still miss on my iPad), a dual-core Atom processor--as I said above, the new, highly integrated Atom design has much better battery life--and last but not least a decent apps store: the millions of Windows applications out there.

And then there's products such as the dual-screen Toshiba Libretto W100, another interesting--though pricey--dual-core processor-based Windows 7 hybrid.

So, will a hybrid category of tablet/Netbook emerge to reinvent the Netbook category and--along with a new crop of dual-core models--stall the iPad's heady growth? Maybe a more practical question is, will hybrids give prospective iPad buyers pause when shopping in places like Best Buy?

Finally, a brief history--and forecast--of three-pound-and-under compute devices at Best Buy, Verizon, AT&T:

  • 2008: First Asus Eee PC Netbooks appear at Best Buy
  • 2009: 3G-enabled Netbooks are introduced in force at Verizon (e.g., HP Mini) and AT&T stores
  • 2009: Netbook choices, shelf space expand at Best Buy: HP, Toshiba, Samsung, Dell, Acer, Asus
  • 2010: iPad comes to Best Buy, offering first viable alternative to Netbooks
  • 2011: Netbook/tablet hybrids come to Best Buy, such as "WiMax" capable Dell Inspiron Duo
  • 2011: Tablets at all three stores: Samsung Galaxy Tab plus Motorola, HP, BlackBerry