Is the iPad really killing netbooks?

November 3rd, 2010 in .Blogs
Nick Holland
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Is the iPad really killing netbooks?

In recent news, sales figures have put netbooks falling out of favour while tablets – or rather the Apple iPad – is selling hand-over-fist. Now the two exist in roughly the same price segment, although with 3G options the iPad is definitely more expensive, but is it just a choice between the two or is there more to it than that?

Personally I think it’s a dash of the former but more the latter.

Why exactly?

Yes, to some extent the two do compete for the same level of disposable income, so it becomes a case of one or the other to spend money on… after the inevitable smartphone upgrade for the year.

The fact is though that tablets are in vogue this year. Netbooks were the darlings of 2007 to 2009 – they were a new concept and milestone of an all affordable laptop with ‘good enough’ performance. ASUS first introduced the concept with its Eee PC 700, then Intel capitalised on it and extended the market with its Atom technology.

The thing is, after three years and millions sold, this gadget isn’t as sexy and novel any more. New markets emerged before the iPad, like the ultra-thin platform, which saw CULV overpriced at first, but it came down quickly. This was all while netbook prices went up as cost of the core hardware increased. Also, lets not forget that after millions sold many people either already own a netbook, or simply fancy something new to play with too.

As I mentioned above, Smartphone use has exploded in this time as well having also caught up in performance with these basic laptops, and while the netbook advantage is still perfect cross-compatibility with Windows OS’ and supplemental x86 software, things like reading email, surfing the net and watching video can all be done on a smartphone too.

Brand association with performance

I hate to say it but the netbook has partly suffered because Intel has largely sandbagged the core performance of its Atom hardware, and unfortunately, will do for another year too. A fundamental core update isn’t due until late 2011.

OK, there have been functional improvements with its latest series: lower power (longer battery life), an integrated single piece of silicon and a DDR3 upgrade, but the processor at heart remains the same. It’s become a situation where people see “Intel Atom” and the association is under performance and wanting more.

This is despite the fact that dual-core hardware from the likes of the D525 and N550, are really not that bad – the extra muscle runs Windows 7 and applications smoothly. The Atom brand name maybe very well known, but people want something new and fashionable, something else to aspire to.

New concepts, hardware and software is all due to tempt us in 2011

So the iPad has made its stamp firmly on 2010, but next year though, I’m not so sure it will command quite the same grip. For starters the tablet market will get plenty of new hardware from the competition – not forgetting ASUS’ awesome looking Eee Pad 121 and 101 – and both Intel and AMD will reinvigorate the ‘netbook’ market in different ways:

Firstly, AMD will launch its ‘Ontario’ and ‘Zacate’ APUs with what looks like an incredible piece of highly packed hardware that sports never before seen graphical capacity: think DirectX 11 PC gaming and Blu-ray capable hardware, on the go! At 9-18W it should easily slip into 10.1″, 11.6″ and 12″ netbook/ultra portable formats giving this hardware a significant performance injection to do things it never could before. This will reset the gulf between netbook and smartphone.

Intel will also launch its Oak Trail hardware aimed squarely at both tablets and making ‘netbooks’ gorgeous, ultra-thin fashion accessories too. This new market could likely create a fashionably small and beautiful ultra-mobile format that will draw back people’s attention. Products like ASUS’ Eee PC 1015PW already strike an important aesthetic alternative in the current netbook platform, so I expect with this experience ASUS, and others, will build on that.

Google Android and eventually Intel/Nokia MeeGo OS’ will also offer an alternative to Windows on a variety of platforms too. We could see a more netbook/tablet hybrid products with touchscreens as well – there’s a whole wealth of design choices from upcoming hardware and software.

It’s simply not as clear cut as death of one, replaced by the other, since the ‘netbook’ is also gearing up for an evolution into a variety of new products in a few months. It’s merely a natural product cycle and by this time next year we should have a half dozen platforms and more OS’ options than we’ve ever had before – choice is a wonderful thing!

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  • Sarah

    Indeed, choice is great! It’s very important for the healthy market to provide consumers with choice. I don’t think tablets will kill netbooks. For example, I still prefer netbook or laptop or work. iPad is a beautiful gadget, but it can’t fully replace a netbook.
    Sarah, from iphone application development