Thoughts on netbook trends

15 April 2009

This morning I had an enjoyable interview with a reporter from SD Times about trends in our market specifically (what DevExpress is concentrating on this year) and on our industry in particular (what you might call consumer computing).

One of the trends I (and many others) have seen over the past 6 months or so is the meteoric rise of netbooks, those small cheap underpowered mini-laptops with 9, 10 inch screens and ridiculously long battery times. The current netbook phenomenon can be traced to the Asus Eee PC in 2007, although certainly PCs like the One Laptop Per Child project has had some influence. Although early netbooks exclusively used some form of Linux with a user-friendly interface, by mid-2008 netbooks were appearing with Windows XP as the OS. Netbooks are also important for their use of SSDs (Solid State Drives) before these became more widespread in normal laptops. Netbooks sales have grown exponentially (an estimated 400,000 in 2007, 11.8 million in 2008, and a projected 35 million in 2009) compared to a stagnant PC market, so much so that it has reduced Microsoft's (Windows XP is much cheaper for OEMs than Windows Vista, and they've been selling boatloads of XPs on netbooks and not many Vistas in comparison) and Intel's revenues (the Atom processor is much cheaper than your run-of-the-mull Core 2 Duo).

The interesting thing about netbooks derives from their name (part Internet and part Notebook): they're designed for use on the web. Sure the Windows-equipped versions can run normal Windows apps, but it seems that's not particularly what people get them for. For a start, they tend to have small amounts of storage (especially those with SSDs) and no optical drives, so installing software is a bit hit and miss and not many people bother. No, it's all about getting on the web through wifi (although many netbooks now come with 3G cards too) and surfing and using web-based applications.

In essence, netbooks are more about the personal and not the business life. Since they get online really easily, they target the person who wants to carry around a light small laptop that's easier to use than a smart phone for web stuff. Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and other social sites. Surfing. Reading the news. Watching YouTube videos. That sort of thing. They're about online leisure activities, not work.

It's amazing how many people are eschewing ordinary laptops to go for a "simpler" appliance-type computing device. A device that only acts as a conduit to applications and computing on the web, that's updated through the web, and that requires the web in order to be productive. To meet that demand, just look at the cloud applications out there for you:  internet mail, Google docs, online backups (although for a device that you don't install anything on, I'm not sure how important those are), and so on. If you wanted to at least install some basic applications like Skype, you'd have a much broader communication experience as well.

In other words, the fastest rising segment of consumer computing is focused on the web. It's pointing to the growing use of cloud computing, to the rise of social websites. What does that mean for us, you and me, developers writing applications? Well, simple really: the web is where it's at. Sure, there will always be a market for thick clients (probably), but more and more consumers are voting with their hardware money for web access, for the wider interactivity that's affordable through being online.

Over Easter I bought a Dell Mini 9 (it should arrive this week) and I'm going to be seeing how well I can adjust to a web-only life as a man-in-the-street consumer. Of course, there's going to be developer activities that won't translate, but for the rest I'm going to try it out.

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