The end is near for netbooks

As Acer announces it will phase out netbooks in favor of tablet computers, here's why netbooks were never serious contenders.

So long, netbooks.

If the fact few people are buying netbooks nowadays isn't enough, Acer sales manager Lu Bing-hsian has gone on record as saying that tablets will soon replace netbooks in Acer's line-up. "That's the direction of the market," he says.

It's hard to argue. The recent Consumer Electroincs Show saw lots of tablets being launched and the netbook hype is well and truly over. Thankfully.

I've been waiting for this moment since late 2007. That's when I took receipt of the first ever netboo, an Asus Eee 701. I was among the first in the world to own one, having placed an order well in advance.

The eagerness with which I tore open the packaging was destroyed within minutes of booting up. It was a horrible user experience. I developed a hand cramp within half an hour from typing on the tiny keyboard. The touchpad was laughably small--like sliding your finger around on a postage stamp. The screen was too small to do anything useful.

It just didn't work. It was a failure. I tried very hard to like it, hoping my issues would go away, but it was hopeless. I sold the netbook within a month (thank you eBay!). However, I clearly hadn't learned a lesson because in 2009, I bought another netbook: a Dell Mini 9. An initial honeymoon period ended pretty quickly and the same issues returned, including the hand cramp and uselessly small screen.

Like all netbooks, the Mini 9 was unusable for anybody but a small child or somebody with small hands and a lot of patience. True, some people loved them. Others managed without too many issues. Most people, like me, bought them and realized they'd made a mistake, before putting them on a shelf to collect dust.

Nobody admitted this. It felt like a lot of the technology press were waiting for the design limitations to be magically somehow ironed out. But that never happened.

I came to the conclusion that the netbook form factor simply doesn't work. Or, rather, it would have worked fine if manufacturers had done something other than merely given us shrunken laptops. If they'd actually thought about the limitations of the small form factor and made creative and intelligent design decisions, it might have been a different story.

Part of the trouble was that manufacturers saw netbooks as a way to sell cheap computers. As far as they were concerned, it was always about tapping into a market that couldn't afford full-blown laptops.

From a consumer point of view, we wanted ultraportable computers, but ones that didn't sacrifice usability. Price was an issue, as it always is, but manufacturers didn't always need to drop to bottom dollar prices. A few dollars added to the ticket price, but invested in better design, would have paid dividends.

For example, netbook software was uniformly poor quality. Linux and Windows were fine on larger computers but on small computers a "full" OS didn't make sense. A new operating system was required, not an adapted one.

Web browsing needed to be rethought. Including a standard Web browser was mindless. With its toolbar and status bar, browsers chewed up screen real estate and left little actual space for Web pages. I'm not a user interface (UI) designer but wouldn't it have made more sense to move all that over to the left or right-hand side? Most of netbook screens were essentially wide-screen, and few Websites demand a wide view.

To see how things could have been done, we need only look at tablet computers. As with netbooks, we again have the same old computing hardware in a new form factor. But Apple's iOS and Google Android make all the difference. They're operating systems specifically designed to work on this kind of device. Intelligent decisions have been made. Web browsing is a dream, not a nightmare.

However, netbooks undeniably gave the world one thing: they introduced the concept of people owning more than one computing device. We forget that, back in 2007, only geeks owned more than one computer. Most of us relied on a single computer, whether that was a desktop or a laptop.

Netbooks showed how we could spread our digital lives across a number of computers. The tablet and smartphone revolution that's happening right now couldn't have begun without netbooks clearing a path.

So perhaps I should be thanking netbooks, rather than gloating over their demise.

If nothing else, they showed how not to do things.

Keir Thomas has been writing about computing since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com and his Twitter feed is @keirthomas.

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Keir Thomas

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