I’ve seen a number of reports over the last few months about how the Netbook segment of the computer industry is leveling off or even declining. The latest update comes from CNET, which reprots that Intel and researchers IDC are both suggesting that Intel Atom chip shipments are representing a smaller portion of overall microchip shipments than they were last year.
But there are a few implicit assumptions in this type of article. First is the idea that the term “netbook” only applies to laptops with Atom chips. Second is the fact that the term “netbook” actually matters at all.
If we never use the word netbook again, I don’t think it will really change things very much. What did change things was the introduction of a new class of low cost ultraportable computer. A few years ago a 3 pound computer with a 10 inch display would have set you back a few thousand dollars. Today you can get one for a few hundred bucks.
If people are starting to move away from the typical 10 inch machine with 1GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive, and Windows 7 Starter Edition, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going back to paying thousands of dollars for a more powerful machine. Instead, netbooks have shown demand for less powerful, but affordable systems. And the selection of computers with 11.6, 12.1, and 13.3 inch displays is greater today than I’ve ever seen it — and many of these laptops are available for $700 or less. Many are powered by moderately low power chips from Intel and AMD which provide better-than-netbook performance and reasonably good battery life.
At the same time, Apple has revived interest in affordable tablet-style devices with the introduction of the iPad. It doesn’t use an Atom processor either. Instead, it has an ARM-based chip which provides 10 or more hours of battery life and always-on capabilities so that you can receive incoming messages even when the tablet is suspended.
I don’t think we’ll see $300 computers with 10 inch displays and Intel Atom processors disappear overnight. In fact, Intel seems to think that they’ll continue to make up about 20 percent of the notebook space for a while to come. But I think the netbook’s lasting impact will be a shift in the way we think about price and portability for all mobile computers.