Netbooks and the transitory dominance of tablets

Netbooks and the transitory dominance of tablets

Remember when netbooks were going to be the next wave of computing? When IT journalists breathlessly announced that Microsoft was going to be made irrelevant by the widespread adoption of Linux on netbooks?

Earlier this year the final netbook manufacturers announced that they were no longer going to make netbooks. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2012/dec/31/netbooks-dead-2013

There’s been many hand waving as to why netbooks are no longer available. Some suggest it is the release of the iPad, others the GFC, and some the rise of “ultrabooks”. Whatever it was, at some point people stopped buying netbooks and manufacturers stopped making them.

Are tablets going to suffer the same fate?

Consider the following: In the last few months there has been a change in the tablet market. The market for “large” 10/11 inch tablets is no longer hot – “Samsung sold an estimated 17 million tablets in the first half of 2013 … 70% of which were 7-inch devices” http://news.yahoo.com/samsung-supposedly-slashes-10-1-inch-tablet-orders-023023989.html.

Consider the Netbook: After the initial excitement about netbooks, it turned out that when people used them for any length of time, they found the screen and keyboards just a bit too small to perform serious work. Laptops started to catch up in battery life and decrease in weight and when they did, people shifted back from netbooks to laptops. While it’s probably possible to make an ultrathin netbook (I bet we will see one at some point and it will probably be the next fad) netbooks in part failed because their screens and keyboards were too small.

Now consider tablets. Tablets beyond 10 inches in size, after initial market success, don’t seem to be able to hold a place in the “device ecosystem” with manufacturers shifting to 7 inch territory. Now that they have shrunk, my suspicion is that phones are going to put the sort of pressure on tablets that ultrabooks put on netbooks.  A 7 inch device is a consumption rather than a creation device. You can browse social media on it, you can watch movies on it, you can browse the web on it, but you are going to have a harder time writing an essay or report or anything of substance on it. You can also do all those consumption tasks on a phone with a large screen and you need a phone more than you need a 7 inch tablet.

If the market for 10 inch plus tablets was going strong, I’d have more faith in the prediction that tablets are replacing PCs and that the post-PC era was upon us. I suspect shrinking screen size down to the size of phones is something that will be successful in the short term, but unsustainable in the long term. There may be laptops with detachable screens or tablets of the Surface/Surface Pro variety (though perhaps the sales of those devices don’t provide good evidence for that argument) – but unless sales of 10 inch plus tablets improve, my suspicion is that the dominance of tablets as we know them will be as transient as the projected dominance of netbooks.

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