Netbooks are notebooks

Smaller, cheaper notebooks are indeed a welcome trend. That doesn't make them a unique category.

Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff is Red Hat's cloud evangelist although the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He's focused on enterprise IT, especially cloud computing. However, Gordon writes about a wide range of topics whether they relate to the way too many hours he spends traveling or his longtime interest in photography.
3 min read

There's a bit of an anti-Netbooks meme making the rounds in blogs and on Twitter and the expected push-back from their fans. From where I sit, this is fueled partially by the conflating of product and product category, partially by competitive sniping, and partially by genuine consumer confusion. Let me try to tease those threads apart.

I've been skeptical from pretty much the beginning that there was a bright line distinction between Netbooks and other inexpensive, small form-factor notebooks. And it's this lack of a truly standalone category that analyst Michael Gartenberg is writing about in his provocatively titled "Netbooks R.I.P."

"What's in a name?" Shakespeare asked, adding "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." While some perceive the netbook as a new product category -- a class of device that's never existed -- I would have to beg to differ. A netbook is merely a laptop with the pivotal axis based on price first and foremost... Sure, my price-oriented definition might sound heretical to those who view the netbook as an ode to cloud computing, ubiquitous usage scenarios, and freedom from Microsoft OS tyranny, but that's not how the market has shaped out.

The current generation of Netbooks tends to have certain defining characteristics--specifically Intel Atom processors and the Windows XP (or Linux). But, as Gartenberg notes, a 7-inch screen also used to be a defining characteristic. Now many Netbooks come with 10-inch screens. Come Windows 7 and future processor generations from Intel (and AMD), I expect any clear distinctions that exist today to rapidly blur.

That's not to say that analysts and product managers won't create a bucket for small, price-focused notebooks. They may call that bucket "Netbooks." They may call it "Value Ultraportables." They may call it "Fred."

IT industry people like to chop markets into named categories for reasons of their own, even if as a fellow analyst said at a recent meeting: "the average consumer calls everything a laptop anyway."

One reason that the nomenclature fight around Netbooks is more intense than such battles tend to be is that the distinction between Netbooks and other ultra-portable notebooks is also a fault line in a competitive battle between Intel and AMD.

For Intel, Netbooks have been the big product category win for its Atom processor. (If a somewhat serendipitous win. Atom was originally more focused on a new class of "Mobile Internet Devices" (MID), a product category that so far hasn't taken off.) For its part, AMD has focused on an incrementally higher price and processing power point with its Athlon Neo platform (found in the HP dv2).

As a result, it's in Intel's interests to promote Netbooks as something new that is both apart from and incremental to the notebooks that use higher-end (and higher dollar) Intel parts. At the same time, it's in AMD's interest to denigrate Netbooks as underpowered and not real PCs.

Finally, there is a continuing trickle of evidence, such as this NPD Group report, suggesting that consumer satisfaction with Netbooks isn't all that great.

Like James Robertson, this latest report struck me as a bit curious. Many of the people I know with Netbooks are almost excessively fond of them. However, it's fair comment that most of the people I know as also geeks, are attracted to the new and different, and understand what a Netbook class of device can do--and what it can't. It doesn't stretch credulity to imagine less educated consumers taking a $300 notebook home and then being dissatisfied because it's not a general replacement for a $1,000 notebook.

Highly portable notebooks without the road warrior premiums historically associated with portability are a great advance for consumers. But I'm also excited about the devices that new screen technologies and widespread wireless connectivity could enable. The possibilities in this space are great. Netbooks are just a flavor of notebook.