Palm Pilot, you’re about to have some company up there in the tech afterlife: Word has it that the last two netbook makers — Acer and ASUS — are kicking this device category to the curb and ending production. So much for Acer chairman and CEO J.T. Wang’s stance that netbooks aren’t dead. Last September, the exec vowed to The Wall Street Journal that production would continue. It’s amazing how much can change in just a few short months.
The drumbeat of defeat has been banging down for longer than that, though, which is quite sad when you consider its earlier success. Some would argue that the netbook’s genesis dates way back to the Toshiba Libretto (1996) or even earlier — MS-DOS-powered NEC UltraLite (1988), anyone? — but the modern netbook as we know it has only been around for a handful of years. ASUS’ Eee PC sparked interest in 2007 and helped popularize the category. These cheaper, portable nuggets of basic computing became pretty popular, nabbing 20 percent of the laptop market and delighting mobile users in search of affordable price points and long battery life.
Even when tablet computers landed in the public consciousness, sparked by Apple’s iPad debut in 2010, many users staunchly stuck by their netbooks. At least they did at first. Then in came the “Tablet-palooza,” with its slick marketing, droves of apps and high competition, and ever since, those sub-laptops have been limping along in the single digits. Meanwhile makers like Samsung, HP and Dell all jumped ship for tablets. Little wonder why: The far sleeker tablets, like the iPad, Galaxy Tab, Galaxy Note 10.1 and Kindle Fire, are more portable, and thanks to app-driven eco-systems, they’re quite functional and entertaining. And, this can’t be stressed enough, they’re just plain sexier.
What’s interesting is that recent contender Microsoft Surface uses an attachable keyboard component, which is not unlike ASUS’ own Eee Pad Transformer tablet line, to effectively bridge the two devices in one product. With “phablets” — like the Samsung Galaxy Note II — and ever-skinnier laptops and ultrabooks further crowding the space, netbooks hardly had a chance. No wonder its business dwindled. While ideas furthering the ethos may live on in products like Google’s Chromebook (for now), the era of the netbook as we knew it is officially over.
So rest in peace, old buddy. You were a prime example of how important pricing, portability and battery life are to consumers, as so many users notably sacrificed computing power just to get them. It’s the legacy you leave behind, and hopefully it will be a learning lesson for manufacturers of mobile devices for years to come.