Microsoft Killed the Netbook – not the Tablet

by Dave Michels

What we have here is a case of the victors writing the history book.

We learned recently that Dell decided to discontinue selling Netbooks because of tablets. Netbooks? You remember them – the small, inexpensive notebook-like computers with a lightweight operating system. They came in a few different flavors of Windows and Linux. They were the rage a few years ago.

I bought one – by Asus. It has a lightweight version of Linux. It worked pretty well, but it was too small for me. I found the screen and keyboard just awkward, the Gmail menu’s and ads took up more room than email content. I had planned to buy a full size netbook with Windows 7 – the upcoming generation.

The reason netbooks took off was a combination of price and cloud. Many people (like me) don’t have much data on their hard drives any more, and particularly when traveling the cloud is enough. This blog, my email, Twitter, FB, etc – are all in the cloud. I have lots of “windows” open, but they are all browser tabs.  This is, by the way, the reason I am a PC and not a Mac. I agree Mac’s offer a superior end user experience, but since the browser is pretty much the same and the price isn’t, I use a PC. Back to the Netbook, it turned out I wasn’t alone – for those that wanted a cheap device to get online – the Netbook won. So much so that netbook’s started eating into the sales of notebooks and Microsoft’s more expensive copies of Windows (cir 2009). See Notebook Sales Flatten, While Netbooks Surge.  Netbooks were the perfect cloud device, small, portable, and cheap. 

The boom of the Netbook was not something Microsoft was happy about.  The Windows netbooks were running a version of XP that was very inexpensive. With Windows 7, Microsoft made some license changes and restricted netbooks to miniature computers, specifically the screen had to be 10.1″ or smaller. I never bought another netbook.

Sure there was a Linux version, but it was a pain in the rear. It just added unnecessary complications. For example, I also had my iPod on a trip and wanted to use the USB port on the netbook for charging. But the pre-installed Linux music app took note of my iPod and somehow corrupted my music on the iPod. There were other problems too – a Windows based netbook is what I wanted.

So now the netbook is officially dead – and the articles are saying the tablet did it. It is true that tablets are booming and no one wants a netbook, but for the record Dell doesn’t make a tablet either. Both tablets and Netbooks are cloud devices and run about $500. It’s that simple. People are willing to pay $500 for a low maintenance cloud device. There were none, then came the netbook and it took off. Microsoft killed it, and then there we were back to expensive, heavy, high-maintenance notebooks.

The tablet is superior over the netbook in many ways – as is whatever is state of the art in two years from now will be superior to current options.

But had Microsoft embraced the netbook, it could have been the victor of a new era. Instead, it fought the end-user and forced them down a different path. Apple seized the opportunity with its version of a netbook – the iPad. The real irony here is the iPad’s screen size. Turns out it wasn’t the screen that was the netbook’s problem it was the keyboard.

I don’t mean to take anything away from the iPad’s success – just don’t tell me it killed the netbook. the iPad and sealed the netbook’s fate, but Microsoft had already killed killed it – years ahead of Apple.

And some people say Apple is ahead of Microsoft.