Chromebooks and iPads

When I put together my thoughts about the death of netbooks I caught myself repeating the word underpowered more than probably allowed by the style guides. What’s interesting is that transition from underpowered devices to underserved users can explain why certain things happened and what the future might have for us.

Why Underpowered Netbooks Failed, but iPad Did Not?

Let’s return back to 2010, the time when netbooks blossomed enjoying 34 million units in worldwide sales last year and analysts drawing all but wonderful future for this class of devices. This was also the year, when iPad was introduced. Remember it?

iPad 1
iPad 1

1st generation iPad with 1GHz CPU and only 256Mb of RAM did not look that much impressive compared to an average netbook of that time equipped with 1.6 GHz CPU with as much as 1GB of RAM. How then could it have happened that 2010 was also a year when netbooks decline started and less powerful and more expensive iPads began their victorious march?

The reason for this turnover is that for netbooks insufficient overall performance translated into underserved users, but Apple managed to avoid this trap and instead created customer delight. And if there is a single explanation of how that happened it is in the word “apps”. Netbook users were given underpowered general purpose hardware to run traditional desktop applications on top of general purpose operating system and were lead to believe that they would be able to do that with the level of comfort they were used to with their heavy laptops. In retrospect it is easy (many things are easier in retrospect) to see why that would not fly, and why users would not like the sub par experience and would search for alternatives: tablets and later ultrabooks.

With custom operating system and, more importantly, apps iPad is able to provide superior experience on substantially less powerful hardware. It was only possible because both OS and the apps were carefully crafted to take most out of the underlying platform and not give the false promise that traditional software would work ok. Netbooks did not have any of that and initial “specification excitement”[1] turned into mediocre daily experience.

So What About Chromebooks?

Chromebook, just like the iPad, does not pretend to be “just what you are used to, but better in some ways”. From day one its was marketed and seen as something different. Of course, the fact that Chromebooks have all the familiar laptop shape adds to the confusion, but we can be sure that people who get them do not simply go after cheaper general purpose PC laptops.

Chrome Web Store - Offline Apps
Chrome Web Store - Offline Apps

Another area where difference helps is applications. Because of the fact that the platform decidedly does not run applications from earlier era, developers are forced to create new applications, which specifically target the new device. Applications that cater for the strengths of the platform and workaround it’s weaknesses are what gives Chromebooks and Chrome OS at least a fighting chance against others for the future consumer computing.

  1. That’s when you get excited about something after reading the specs, but before actually using it.  ↩