The Netbook Revolution is Over. So What Did You Win?

Congratulations! The netbook revolution is over and you won. Monday, Intel announced the general availability of new systems from most major vendors featuring its dual-core Atom N550 processor. The company also shared that it has shipped over 70 million Atom CPUs since it first launched the low-voltage, low-priced platform back in 2008. Yet with so much success has come massive stagnation—and even declines in sales. The problem isn’t that netbooks have failed. On the contrary, they’ve succeeded so well that they have become irrelevant.

To understand where the revolution went wrong, we must go back to its roots. Like many movements, this one was started by a few idealistic academics. Nicholas Negroponte, formerly of  MIT, was the Che of cheap computers, heralding a new era of low-cost, long-lasting laptops that would destroy the digital divide. He started out with a radical agenda, promising sub-$100 laptops to children around the world.

The OLPC  laptops would not run a bourgeois operating system like Windows. Instead, they would run Sugar, a special version of Linux, the people’s platform. They would even use Marxist technology like mesh networking, which shares an Internet connection “from each computer according to its ability, to each according to its need.”

However, as with many radical movements, OLPC’s populist ideas didn’t put bread—or in this case, little green computers—on the table. Shortages were commonplace and One Laptop Per Child was often more like half a dozen laptops per village. Worse still, trying to surf the Web or compose an e-mail with the XO laptop’s cryptic Sugar UI and cramped keyboard was more difficult than trudging through twenty miles of Siberian winter for a tiny ration of spoiled borscht.

As the OLPC-kevites struggled to gain power and influence among the people, their core ideals were co-opted by the man. ASUS’s Eee PC 701 gave lip service to Negroponte’s radical agenda: small 7-inch size, long battery life, and a Linux OS, but when you peaked below the hood, you saw capitalist components like a Celeron processor and a licensed, proprietary version of Xandros. Still, the original Eee PC had an ideology; it was designed as a secondary device for surfing the Web and sending e-mail only, not as a smaller laptop.

During this early revolutionary period, many interesting ideas were floated. Some companies, like Everex, thought that a gOS-based platform was the future. Others, like Emtec with its Gdium Liberty 1000, wanted to start an anarchist state, so they built a netbook without an operating system or hard drive, and invited the people to bring their own flash drives.  In its original Mini-Note, HP even tried a VIA processor that ran hot enough to sterilize a Federline.

But despite these unique experiments, the  bourgeois class began to demand creature comforts like 10-inch screens, 5,400 rpm hard drives, and familiar operating systems. Intel obliged by developing  its Atom platform, which first appeared in late Spring 2008. Suddenly, everyone from Acer to Viewsonic was building netbooks and Microsoft even lowered its prices for the new category, saying “let them have Windows XP.”

Since that time, the entire notebook world has changed, mostly for the better. Netbooks helped PC manufacturers to focus on low-cost and long battery life. They proved that, for many users, having the fastest processor isn’t nearly as important as having a light-weight system that lasts all day on a charge. So netbooks began to morph from the hippie on the corner shouting “down with optical drives” to the CEO in the boardroom, editing spreadsheets on his HP Mini 5102. They grew as large as 12-inches in size, started carrying huge hard drives, and offering HD screens with discrete graphics.

Ultraportable notebooks began to get more affordable too. Where 12- and 13-inch notebooks were once the exclusive province of business executives with over $1,000 to spend, a new generation of ultra-low voltage consumer and small business systems appeared with prices under $600 and battery lives close to those of their netbook counterparts.

So what are your considerable spoils from this revolution?  Cheaper, lighter, longer-lasting portable computers. In other words, a huge win.

However, dual-core processors are just the latest in a long line of improvements to the netbook that make it nothing more than a 10 or 11-inch ultraportable laptop, a far cry from its radical beginnings as a secondary web-focused device. How long until vendors give up the ghost, stop calling them netbooks, and begin to market them as 10-inch notebooks? Tiny as they are, many people use them for Microsoft Office, photo editing, or even playing World of Warcraft at a low resolution.

Today’s revolutionaries come from the smart phone and tablet worlds. Companies like Apple, Google, HTC, Motorola, and Samsung are the new radicals pushing a web-connected future of secondary devices with many of the leading netbook vendors (ASUS, Acer, HP, MSI, etc) looking to join the insurgency. Let’s just hope this generation sticks to its ideals.

Online Editorial Director Avram Piltch oversees the production and infrastructure of LAPTOP’s web site. With a reputation as the staff’s biggest geek, he has also helped develop a number of LAPTOP’s custom tests, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. Catch the Geek’s Geek column here every other week or follow Avram on twitter.

AUTHOR BIO
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
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  1. Brad Linder Says:

    Arguably, that’s been the legacy of the netbook revolution since day one. While Asus may have shipped the Eee PC 701 with a silly version of Xandros that really wasn’t designed to do much of anything useful, the earliest adopters figured out how to install Ubuntu, Windows XP, or simply install third party apps on Xandros pretty quickly. The appeal of these netbooks was always the fact that they were small, light, cheap devices that were at the core fully functional computers.

    Contrast that to earlier ultraportables such as the HP Jornada or NEC MobilePro (or even the Psion Netbook), which all ran mobile software instead of full desktop apps.

    I’ve never gotten too hung up on the names we use to describe these computers, but I’d say the line between netbooks and notebooks has been pretty thin from the get-go, which is why they became so popular.

    But I agree with you on the larger point — the legacy of the Eee PC 701 and every netbook that followed is that you can now spend a reasonable amount of money to get an ultraportable that weighs around 3 pounds or less and which has either decent performance or excellent battery life… or sometimes both. That’s a huge step forward from where we were just a few years ago.

  2. Rakesh Raghoebardayal Says:

    I also would like to add, that the Asus eee pc 701 wasn’t the trend setter in long battery life/cool temps (it ran hot and no longer than 2,5 hours). The Samsung NC10 set the trend for battery life with a whopping 6,5 hours and low temperatures. I owned both and love them both, although the keyboard on the 701 was hell to type on.

  3. Avram Piltch Says:

    Totally agree that the Eee PC 701 was weak in battery life. Actually, I think the first really strong battery life netbook was the MSI Wind U100, which happened to be the first Atom netbook as well.

  4. Joanna Says:

    This story brought me back. Actually, when you think about what’s happening now with tablets it’s very much the same thing we saw with netbooks — companies are tinkering with different OSes and trying to figure out what is the best mix of software and hardware. The people will win again!

  5. Agnel Says:

    What makes you think it’s over? I love my EeePC 1000HE. I write code on it, surf the net and watch movies too. If sales have fallen, it might just be because most netbooks today come with Windows 7 Starter Edition. If XP were still available, I’m pretty sure that most non-tech users would still opt for these awesome little machines.

    Let’s hope that Ubuntu, Android and Chrome OS set things straight here. $400 is a good enough price to be able to edit documents, surf the net, watch movies and even write code.

  6. Avram Piltch Says:

    I don’t think 10-inch Atom-based notebooks are dead. I think they are a commodity now that is not very different from a low cost notebook. They are not breaking new ground. They are small windows notebooks.

  7. KeithR Says:

    I loved them as they originally came out – the eee901 (8.9″ screen) with ubuntu is great, though I did replace the original SSD with a much faster runcore model. But still a terrific little computer and I use it every day. Once they moved up to 10-11″ and started using normal HDDs they ceased to have the ultraportability I liked so much.

  8. Corinn Says:

    @Agnel: Ugh are you serious? I can’t even stand to do my programming homework on my 15″ laptop which has 768 vertical pixels…

    I swear I’m going to buy a 1920×1080 LCD monitor that can rotate into portrait mode…

  9. kanjisasahara Says:

    No doubt that the netbook has changed the computing landscape, but it has no way influenced my purchases. It has never provided enough computing power, screen space, or hard drive space for it to be of any use to me. I use a laptop as my main system, so it would be pointless to have another portable computer. Although I will acknowledge that netbooks have helped create a class of cheaper, more efficient laptops. It may have helped millions of people, but certainly not me.

  10. Agnel Says:

    @Corinn: It’s my only computer. And I have no problem using VC9 on this.

  11. Agnel Says:

    @Avram: I stand corrected. :)

  12. Peter G. Says:

    Welcome to two years ago.

    http://news.cnet.com/8301-13512_3-10145482-23.html

    . png

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