There are a lot of headlines going around today about how the iPad and thin and light laptops are putting the squeeze on netbook sales… and thus that they might be harbingers of doom for the netbooks.

There’s just one problem. Those headlines are tied to a study from Retrovo, which suggests that a significant percentage of people who are considering purchasing a netbook or iPad are leaning toward the iPad — and that those considering a netbook or laptop are leaning toward the laptop. The problem is that the study never claims that netbooks are dying — just that it will be hard for them to keep up the astronomic growth that they experienced in the past year.

And that’s kind of a no-brainer. Did anyone really think that there’d be an 641% increase in netbook sales two years in a row? A large part of the reason sales grew so much last year is because the previous year there were almost no netbooks on the market. 2009 was the first full year that almost every major PC maker had a netbook to sell. Over the past two years many would-be netbook customers have already made their purchases, and it might be a while before they need to buy another netbook.

With new product categories like tablets and thin and light notebooks with ULV (Ultra Low Voltage) processors to choose from, of course some folks would choose those items instead of netbooks.

But that doesn’t mean that netbooks are going to disappear. They still hit a sweet spot of price, performance, and portability. If you want a 10 inch, 2.5 pound machine with a nearly full sized keyboard for under $300, netbooks are still the only game in town.

I particularly get a kick out of Retrovo’s chart explaining that 65% of people deciding between a netbook and a full sized laptop went with a laptop. That’s actually higher than I would have expected, since netbook sales only represent about 20% of portable computer sales at the moment. Also amusing is ZDNet’s claim that netbooks will be relegated to a niche product… because they weren’t already a niche? You know what else is a niche? Computers — which are a niche in the consumer electronics category. I mean, seriously.

I don’t know why everyone squeals with glee every time a study comes out suggesting that netbook sales could be slowing. But I think it’s important to put these things in perspective. No. Netbook sales will not grow as quickly as they did last year. They probably won’t ever do that again. But that doesn’t mean the product category is dead. As I pointed out yesterday, 85 million netbooks have been sold in the past 2.5 years. Compare that with about a million iPads sold in the first month.

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10 replies on “Department of obvious research: Netbook sales are slowing”

  1. I think netbook sales might be slowing due to fact that people who want them already have. Am I willing to spend another $400 for a newer model, no would be the answer. My real question is whether touchpads will live or die. people like me are not willing to spend $500 for something that lacks features of a notebook.

  2. Worth noting is this fact. How many of those polled are updating/replacing their existing laptop? I guess a lot. You don’t replace a laptop with a netbook. I think most consumers are aware of this. If their laptop was their portable device and they had the desktop, then maybe you can get a few netbook votes from them. Overall, people using stats don’t understand what they are doing.

  3. “I don’t know why everyone squeals with glee every time a study comes out suggesting that netbook sales could be slowing.”

    I can tell you exactly why. Because Steve Jobs said netbooks are no good, so there’s an army of Apple fanboys who are desperate for netbooks to go away and confirm Dear Leader’s feelings.

    Nice article, by the way, it’s sad how many “journalists” don’t understand fairly simple concepts like rate of growth. The absolute most shameful so far was the PC World article titled “Survey Says: iPad Is Killing Netbooks”. Then the final paragraph starts out “Analysts say however, that the iPad won’t cripple sales of netbooks.” Yeah great, thanks for that.

    -owner of 2 Dell Mini 9s, an iPhone 3GS, and an iPad 3G.

    1. The outcry started long before Steve Jobs actually. He’s just the most visible of the arrogant fat heads that wished netbooks didn’t exist so they could keep charging thousands of dollars for ‘ultra portables’.

  4. I’m sure a few of you saw the news articles from two months ago that the US Army was going PowerPoint crazy and that some more level headed people at the Pentagon felt that with over use of charts & graphs gave people over confidence in their understanding in what was happening.

    I think the same goes for the tech industry, unless you understand polling, statistics, and how consumers studies are done it is very easy to get caught up in charts & graphs that are easily to misinterpret.

    I’m very interesting in a tablet, but I was VERY interested on one two years ago too. If a poll asked me if I’d rather buy another netbook or a tablet I would say a tablet . But, it is more likely I will buy a netbook. Slightly less likely I will buy a hybrid clamshell design tablet. And, least likely of all that I would buy a tablet unless half a dozen prior requirements and stipulations to the purchase were meet. In the poll I can’t say, “But I’d only buy one if…” that’s not how polling is done in many cases. The best sorts of polls might capture that data in some way, but most are binary yes/no without qualification.

  5. That article was clearly written by someone who doesn’t like netbooks for some reason (probably the ‘they’re not computers they’re toys’ argument or some such), and wasn’t paying attention to what the statistics they quoted were actually saying. Way to call them out on that.

    That said, long term, the word ‘netbook’ probably won’t make sense beyond a marketing term. As processors shrink to smaller and smaller processor nodes, there won’t be the type of thermal restraints which separate the classes of power we have today. We’re at least 3 years from this vision that you could fit a full scale ‘laptop’ into a netbook case, but that’s where we’re heading. At which point, the current definition fails except as a cheap small computer, because in that future there will be fully capable systems in the same form factor which will undoubtedly cost more. Going the other direction I don’t know how much sense it will be if ARM can push UP into the space with ATOM’esq powered Cotex chips, that we’ll keep calling them Smartbooks instead of netbooks since the break in the two terms has always seemed forced, arbitrary, and illogical to my mind.

    I think we’re already seeing this in the ‘where does the Thin and Light Category Start and Netbook end’ arguments that flare up here and there. As a marketing tool, the term netbook had it’s use. It got the user prepared for a lower performance, longer lasting, more mobile laptop like experience. But that’s all it is, a marketing term, and one that will be increasingly more void of definition as technology marches forward.

    There will always be a spot for netbook like devices. Who doesn’t want a cheap computer that they can carry with them, and not worry too much about? That won’t change. We’re not going back to an era where laptops are either massive desktops with a battery, or super expensive ‘ultra portables’. What will change is what we mean by the word netbook.

    Or that’s the way I see it.

  6. Brad. I just have to say that is so nice to see a grownup covering technology. Unlike the article which you linked, you didn’t have to resort to the populist personification “killer” to present and discuss the numbers. I dream that my child will grow up in a world devoid of device-on-device crime, where devices put aside their petty differences, stop “killing”, stop trying to be a “This Device Killer” or a “That Device Killer”, and start living side-by-sided, competitively but harmoniously, to ever better serve the market and consumers.

    I think you correctly identify price as the major reason why netbooks sales have been so strong Price is the top priority for most shoppers. I think that the forthcoming crop of “tablets” will be very interesting from the standpoint that whichever device group is the cheapest, netbooks or tablets, that’s where the growth is going to surge in forthcoming quarters.

  7. Statistics are like a lamp post to an alcholic. Used more for support than enlightenment.

    No matter how hard they spin it, netbooks are not going away.

    1. Yeah, I was tempted to just let this study pass without comment, but it was
      getting too much attention. I figured folks would complain about my bias if
      I just ignored it, so I figured I’d point out that nowhere in the research
      does it suggests that netbooks are done for — no matter how other people
      care to interpret the study.

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