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.  ↩

Netbooks: come and gone?

For the last week I've been meaning to write about the death of netbooks. But as I tried to pull my thoughts together it was difficult to come to some sort of overarching conclusion.

My wife have been [almost] happily using netbook for more than 2 years now, but her complaints about unresponsiveness, when she opens more than several tabs in Firefox, seem to grow every day. Still she does not want to change it for a far superior (performance wise) 15" Dell as she likes the form factor and the fact that she does not have to be on power leash most of the time. As for me, I definitely liked the price when I bought it and looking back I do not see anything which would have given same return on investment. Why is that?

Throughout the history of portable computers we always wanted 4 things

  • powerful
  • lightweight
  • longer battery life
  • inexpensive

Traditional laptops gravitated towards kind of powerful and relatively inexpensive and that was what was needed to have a "mobile office" and be able to easily setup a workplace, when you moved between locations. But times changed. As free WiFi in public places started becoming a norm, getting power for your laptop right where you needed became more problematic hence emphasizing drawback of short battery life. Also carrying around 3 kilos was not exactly the most pleasant exercise for a more mobile yet always connected lifestyle.

Netbooks were (yep, it is "were" not "are" since powerhouses of netbooks wave Asus and Acer stopped production on January 1, 2013) an interesting experiment to meet changing demands of a modern computer user. Cheap, lightweight yet underpowered computers with relatively long life on battery looked like a promising way into the future of mobile computing.

While the bet on mobility was right for netbooks the compromise on the performance went too far. Now many of those who need a mobile laptop would rather pay the price for a more powerful ultrabook or MacBook Air, and those who value mobility above all would opt-in for iPad.

We could have declared the death of netbooks as a class right here, but let's take a look at Amazon's best selling laptops:

Amazon's best selling laptops on January 7, 2013

From hardware standpoint Chromebook is still a netbook and it remains to be seen whether it drag the idea of relatively underpowered, inexpensive cheap mobile computer into the future.