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The Netbook Delusion

Nilay Patel wrote a fun piece over at The Verge recently about the brief history of netbook computers, and pondered their effect on the technology landscape.

There were two products that arrived in 2007 that fundamentally changed computing: one, of course, was the iPhone. The second, obviously more important product was the $399 Eee PC 701. It originally ran a custom Linux operating system that reviewers loved (Laptop Mag’s Mark Spoonauer said it was “ten times simpler to use than any Windows notebook”) and was generally heralded as a new kind of computer with tremendous mass appeal. Spoonauer: “Pound for pound, the best value-priced notebook on the planet.” 

Again, this was a weirdo little two-pound plastic laptop that ran a custom Linux distro that was basically a front for various websites. (We hadn’t invented the phrase “cloud services” yet.)

I was sorely tempted by the Eee PC and the other netbooks that appeared later, but in the back of my mind I did wonder what the catch would be. It literally sounded too good to be true.

In hindsight, it didn't help that the processors used for these netbooks traded performance for battery life. But what really did in the netbook market was Microsoft pushing manufacturers to make them run a cut-down version of Windows 7.

(Not mentioned in the linked article, but relevant to this discussion, are the Pocket PCs of the 1990s and 2000s which in many ways were the netbook's forebears. Those were also something I'd pondered buying, but passed on due to concern over whether I actually needed one.)

Between 2007 and 2010, netbooks were seemingly the future of portable technology, at least in the eyes of technology journalists and bloggers. Nilay Patel's article captures some of the fervour that was around at the time.

Then Apple launched the iPad in early 2010. I was initially unconvinced that it was worth buying, but as more apps became available to take advantage of it I could start to see uses for it, and got my first iPad in October that year.

Did any of this even happen? Is this real? I remember it all, but I can’t tell if it meant anything, or if we all just believed Microsoft and Intel were so mysteriously powerful that we had to live in their product frameworks and 160GB of maximum hard drive space. Did anyone actually buy a netbook? The only people I ever met who had netbooks were other tech writers; at one memorable trade show my colleague Adi Robertson showed up with both a gigantic gaming laptop and a tiny netbook, two laptops both perfectly ill-suited for the tasks at hand.

I asked Joanna, who is now a senior personal technology columnist at the WSJ, about all this, who replied: “Let’s be clear here. Apple’s coming event this week is actually about netbooks. The iPad Pro is an outgrowth of the netbook movement a decade ago.” Was she joking? I don’t know, and she wouldn’t tell me.

I wouldn't describe the iPad as a spiritual descendant of the netbooks — while it's a portable device, Apple approached things from a completely different angle. It really is the technology of the iPhone scaled up, along with the all the strengths and weaknesses. The past decade has seen Apple addressing those, to varying degrees of success, and today's iPads and iPhones are more like evolutionary branches sharing a common ancestor.

A more compelling case could, I think, be made for Microsoft's Surface devices being the netbook's legacy, if only because both hardware and software issues have dogged it since the beginning.

The final paragraph of Nilay's article suggests that perhaps netbooks did succeed, in as much as portable devices are all around us now. I think he's stretching things there, as the portable devices he refers to don't share much if any technology DNA with the netbooks of yore. In fact, I'd say that they have succeeded precisely because they avoided the mistakes and compromises that the netbooks made.

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