Apple, Don’t Join the Netbook Fad

by Chris Howard Apr 28, 2009

Are netbook computers a fad that Apple would do best to avoid?

Netbook computers are selling by the truckload. For travelers who want a light computer to go anywhere, and corporate executives who don't want their desks swamped by a rarely used computer, netbooks are an abolute godsend.

But what about for the rest of us? There seems to be a lot of people buying them hoping they can become their primary computer, but instead finding them too small to be practical for most apps, and to big to take everywhere like they hoped.

Netbooks are a niche device. Unfortunately, lots of people are buying who aren't in the niche but they still hope the netbook will somehow be the ideal device for them too.

The group that staggers me most that is getting on board the bandwagon is education departments. What a waste of money! How impractical are mini-laptops for students? What apps are they going to run? Word processing - no probs; Presentation apps - not practical for creating them; Image editing - hardly; Movie editing - pfft; Layout/DTP - unlikely; Web browser - not ideal; Email - another tick.

That's two definites only. There is really only one group of students that could benefit in the classroom, and that is those who have trouble with handwriting. Oh okay, so that's most boys...  But why spend money on a device when its functionality is easily replicated at home and school?

If a school provides computer acces sfor its students, as most should, why does a student need a netbook? If the student has a computer at home, then, to the best of my knowledge, a USB stick is lighter and more portable than a netbook.

Recently I browsed eBay for netbooks and was surprised how many are being sold after only a very short time of ownership. Some even just days. One guy, who'd only had his a few months, said he'd replaced it with a laptop. Says it all.

The ideal is great, but the practicality isn't. Especially when we're used to 20" screens on our desktops as minimum.

Apple already has the right idea with the MacBook Air. Keep the large screen but trim the weight. Unfortunately, at the moment, its had to trim the specs a bit too much too.

So who else can really justify a netbook?

The proof for me that netbooks are a fad is how rapidly they've scaled up. The first ones had 7" screens. But once they became popular, screen sizes rapidly grew to 9, 10 and even 12 inches. So people quickly found the smaller screens too unusable. It's a laugh because that 12 inches is the same size as the old small Powerbooks.

It's no wonder Apple hasn't got on this bandwagon yet - it already knows the challenges of that market and already has left it. It's also not suprising its said it won't join the party of it can't revolutionize it.

The other issue with netbooks has been the price increase. Early on the price difference was quite significant, but with the larger screens and Windows pre-installed (instead of Linux like the early models), netbook pricing is overlapping the bottom of the laptop prices. Which leaves you wondering just how important that greater portability is when you realize you could get a more powerful machine with a bigger screen for the same money.

And, finally, who needs a netbook when you've got an iPhone? If you could take a netbook everywhere it would be a great device. But you can't unless you like lugging it around - or have got huge pockets in your trousers. However, I can stick an iPhone in my pocket and it will go everywhere with me. Not even a 7" netbook has that portability. And if I'm sacrificing from 15 inches on a laptop or 20 inches on a desktop, what's another few inches in return for the ultimate portability?

The iPhone is all the netbook I'll ever need.

And in fact, because of its 100% portability whilst still providing all my daily functionality, it has become my #1 computer. It's my "go to computer" for most of my needs. My desktop computer, a 17" iMac with a 22" monitor attached, is used for some web browsing, writing longer documents, my graphic design, and my web design and development, but it's the iPhone I turn to first for everything else.

So, all those PC users still desperately looking for their ideal computer can go jump on the netbook bandwagon, but I'm happy with my iPhone. And I think Apple is too.

In a nutshell, netbooks are a niche device, an excellent choice for a small percentage of the marketplace. My dictionary defines a fad as "An interest followed with exaggerated zeal". The fad aspect of the netbooks is all the people getting excited about them who don't fit the niche. Once those people discover that, the fad will pass and netbooks will assume their proper place in the personal computing hieracrchy. And Apple would do best to sit out the netbook craze until it settles down.

Otherwise I think Apple would be wasting its time and money getting into the netbook market now.




  • I bought a Dell Mini 9 and installed OSX on it, and I love it, my macbook just sits gathering dust now (it was however not my main computer). My iphone is nifty for a lot of stuff, but it’s constraints are far higher than a netbook.

    What’s great about the dell is that it almost feels like a disposable computer, portability and cheapness are a good combination for me at the moment, a demographic Apple would rather die than serve. - which is fine.  I’ve got my osx netbook. I don’t need it to have an illuminated Apple on the front, and quite like the freedom on not worrying whether it gets a scratch or not.

    So I agree with you to a degree, Apple shouldn’t bother, but Netbooks are great nevertheless

    barrowman had this to say on Apr 28, 2009 Posts: 15
  • @barrowman: So you’ve admittedly violated the licensing terms for OS X.  Why?  What was wrong with the awesome OS that netbook came with?

    I agree with Chris.  My iPod Touch ( I don’t have an iPhone ) has become the computer I use most often.  My wife calls it “the appendage”.

    Khürt Williams had this to say on Apr 28, 2009 Posts: 45
  • Netbook is a fad and a bad one at that.

    Where’s the mythical Mobile Internet Device (MID) supposed to sit if Netbooks are everywhere from $250 to $700?

    I believe they’re mainly selling because of cost and then small size which of course the more expensive aren’t all that small.

    hmurchison had this to say on Apr 28, 2009 Posts: 145
  • Chris, since I’ve gotten my iPhone, I’d have to agree that it might be all the portable computering that I really need. But my problem is, is that I really can’t type much more than a paragraph or two on the device. And I don’t like lugging around my 15” PowerBook. An Apple netbook would be great for simply writing, web surfing, slide shows, and the such. I would not expect to do any type of professional image creation stuff on it, such movie editing and Photoshop work. So I’m not sure if netbooks are a fad. Some people may discover that they need more than a netbook, but are others like myself would like a netbook for mobile computing. I would especially like it for $300. Personally, I don’t want to pay $1500 for another computer.

    Bakari Chavanu had this to say on Apr 28, 2009 Posts: 47
  • @Khürt LMAO!

    Chris Howard had this to say on Apr 28, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • Found this rather interesting personal experience of netbooking after I’d posted this piece.

    It sums up the fad aspect well. Too many people are buying netbooks (the author included) expecting too much of them.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Apr 28, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • “The iPhone is all the netbook I’ll ever need.”

    You spend a whole article ranting about the foibles of the netbook: underpowered, expecting too much, screen too small, cost too high, and then praise the iPhone as the greatest netbook of all?!

    Let’s see, the iPhone costs more over its two year contract than a Macbook Pro.  So there goes the cost factor.  Underpowered?  The iPhone can’t even multi-task, which has been standard on PCs for about a decade.  No cut-and-paste just yet either.

    And those students you mentioned who want to edit video or images?  Um, nope, not on the iPhone.  And the screen size of course, a mere 3 inches or so.

    How are all of those things faults on a netbook that costs $300, but magically transformed into The Awesome when applied to an Apple product?  I’m always amazed at how that happens.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 29, 2009 Posts: 2220
  • @Khürt Williams - nothing wrong with Ubuntu at all - I just prefer using OSX and having all my machines running on the same operating system. But I’m guessing your question was meant to be some rhetorical point. (abut also breaking Apple and Dell’s EULA is just an added bonus)

    No one is actually making all these people buy Netbooks and put OSX on them. Anyone who buys a 8.9” screen, 1.6ghz single processor machine and then proceeds to complain about those constraints really deserves to lose their money anyway. Unlike the iPhone, I’ve yet to see any netbook be chastised for misselling what they can do and how fast they can do it.

    barrowman had this to say on Apr 29, 2009 Posts: 15
  • Thank, Beeb, I knew someone would pick me up on the apparent contradiction. I did try to cover it in the article, but obviously wasn’t clear enough.

    A netbook first and foremost is about portability, and second price.

    An iPhone beats a netbook handsdown for portability (even one with a 7” screen) and, if you buy an iPhone on a plan, yes, you’ll pay through the nose for it. That’s why I bought mine outright. But even then, I accept it is still dearer than most netbooks.

    However, the convenience that the extra-portability gives makes up for both the extra cost and lesser screen size.

    Regards students. I said (or intended to imply) netbooks were a stupid idea for them. I made no suggestion that the iPhone would be good for them. By saying the iPhone is a great netbook, I automatically imply that it should by no means be considered for students as a substitute for a laptop or desktop computer.

    A lot of people buying netbooks are fooling themselves into thinking they can do more and be more useful than they really are. Sadly, some education departments are falling for it too, lumbering their students with them instead of giving them laptops or desktops.

    The people who are happy with netbooks are those who buy them clearly understanding their limitations. And those limitations mean their main usage greatly overlaps with the iPhone. That is, primarily email and internet.

    The netbook does have the advantage when it comes to writing longer pieces, and are half the price for a 7” model (though don’t include a phone) but even the 7” model you can’t stick in your pocket.

    All those netbook things considered, price, screen size, portability and functionality, I reiterate that I find the iPhone is ideal the netbook. But “for me” I might add, so as not to imply that everyone should think the same.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Apr 29, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • @barrowman - “Anyone who buys a 8.9 screen, 1.6ghz single processor machine and then proceeds to complain about those constraints ...” is precisely why netbooks will remain a niche.  As Chris mentioned the intended audience for a netbook is someone looking for foremost for portability.  But ... because they are also cheap more people are buying them and ... being disappointed.

    Khürt Williams had this to say on Apr 29, 2009 Posts: 45
  • “A netbook first and foremost is about portability, and second price.”

    I disagree.  The netbook is about price.  The size is incidental, they just happen to be smaller than regular notebooks.  If people cared more about size, there are plenty of more powerful machines to be had.  But the selling point of the netbook is the $300 price tag, not the size.

    You are being hypocritical on the students thing.  If both netbooks and iPhones aren’t good for students, then why bring up students at all, especially in a comparison of the netbook vs the iPhone?  You were using students as a critique of netbooks, but you are excusing the iPhone from the same critique.

    And let’s say this is true that people who buy them are fooling themselves.  How is that the netbook’s fault?  The specs are printed on the box.

    And let’s say that those people only want to do e-mail and the internet.  Except that with the iPhone, you can’t do e-mail and internet at the same time.  The keyboard is for shit.  And it costs roughly SIX times the price.  So basically you’re paying six times as much for a small screen and less capability.

    The problem really is in comparing the two.  They are not really the same market.  The iPhone as a smart phone is amazing, but as a computing platform it is lame, lame, lame. 

    Imagine for one second that I try to sell you a computer that only allows one application at a time, that comes with only 16GB of space max, that only has a 3” screen, that only runs apps from one store owned by the same company that makes the computer, that can’t really do word processing, and forget video or image editing altogether.

    Oh, and it costs six times what a bigger, more powerful netbook would cost.

    Fitting in your pocket trumps all else? 

    Yes, for someone who puts size as the A-1 priority and is willing to pay insane amounts of money for it, even if means sacrificing EVERYTHING else in terms of power, applications, etc, then it’s hard to argue against the iPhone.  But that seems like a fairly tiny portion of the netbook market and hardly enough to lay on a whole article about how niche netbooks are.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 29, 2009 Posts: 2220
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