Does Apple Netbook repudiation signal a shift?

Apple COO Tim Cook's negative comments about Netbooks reflect an incipient school of thought.

Brooke Crothers
Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
3 min read

Apple COO Tim Cook's recent comments about Netbooks may reflect an incipient movement to look beyond this category of laptops--now more than a year old. The comments also echo lingering disaffection with the Netbook business model. Sentiment that may not be that far removed from Intel's internal thinking.

Toshiba's first crack at a Netbook was hardly an endorsement of the category--the lackluster design was officially only available in Latin America
Toshiba's first crack at a Netbook was hardly an endorsement of the category--the lackluster design was officially only available in Latin America Brooke Crothers

This New York Times blog does a good job of dispelling any ambiguity about Cook's comments when it says that "contempt may be too kindly a term" to describe his attitude toward Netbooks.

Cook joins a small chorus of less blunt but equally disdainful companies. Toshiba initially resisted Netbooks and in conversations I had with Toshiba at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January (where its Netbook offering had been relegated, quite intentionally, to an easy-to-miss corner of its sprawling booth) they clearly were not enthusiastic about (if not disdainful of) the category.

Toshiba, caving to pressure in its home market (Japan) from Acer and Asus, has since come out with a redesigned Netbook but has yet to offer anything officially in the U.S. market--more than a year after the Atom processor was launched.

And in case anyone misses the irony. Toshiba practically invented the laptop category and, to state the obvious, is one of the largest laptop vendors in the world.

And Sony has gone out of its way to say that its Netbook-like notebook is not a Netbook--and priced it accordingly.

Advanced Micro Devices has been more outspoken than most. Their contempt, to a large extent, is a given since they are Intel's chief rival. And, unlike Toshiba and Sony, they're not a customer of Intel's and don't have to couch their disdain in diplomatic language. (Skeptics will cite a host of other reasons too: AMD's lack of R&D funds to develop an Atom equivalent, for one.).

That said, in conversations I have had with AMD (including CEO Dirk Meyer), they seem to genuinely believe that Netbooks--as defined by Atom--are not going to be around for the long haul. In short, like Apple's Cook, they think they're too dinky. (See Cook's comments linked above for a variation on this theme, including the words "junky," "terrible," and "cramped.")

There is also some anecdotal evidence that demand for Intel's Atom Netbook processors is slowing a bit. (It should be noted that the source for this information is Digitimes, which is not always the most reliable font of information.)

Now, my final statement is strictly opinion. I would submit that Intel--the very company that manufactures the electronics core of virtually all Netbooks--in its more candid moments harbors thoughts not that far removed from Cook's thinking. Intel executives have said in the past that a Netbook is not really practical for more than an hour and "it's not something you're going to use day in and day out."

So, the staying power of Netbooks will be tested over the next 12 months. The forces potentially arrayed against the Netbook--that is, the Netbook as defined by Intel and the Atom processor are:

  • An aggressive ramp by Intel of its Consumer Ultra-Low-Voltage class of chips
  • A successful execution by AMD of its low-power Athlon (aka dual-core "Congo") strategy
  • An enthusiastic reception by tier-one PC makers of Intel's CULV and AMD's Congo
  • A consequent shift in consumer preference for slightly larger, slightly more pricey thin notebooks
  • The popularity of a smartphone-style Netbook, as defined by Qualcomm and its Snapdragon silicon

Time to alert the Netbook grave diggers? Absolutely, categorically not. Atom-based Netbooks are still very popular and their popularity may become entrenched as consumers acclimate themselves to this mode of computing, as Atom gets updated, and as 3G becomes a part of the feature set. But "exciting" new PC categories like the UMPC (ultra-mobile PC) have a way fizzling out when there isn't broad, sustained, enthusiastic industry support.