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Business

January 3, 2013

Slate: Why Apple Killed the Netbook

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Netbooks are dead. Good riddance! Just a few years ago, these small, underpowered, ultracheap laptops were considered the future of the computer industry. In 2008 and 2009, recession-strapped consumers around the world began snapping up netbooks in droves. They became the fastest-growing segment of the PC market, and some wild-eyed analysts were suggesting that netbook sales would soon eclipse those of desktops and regular laptops combined. That didn't happen. Over the past couple years the netbook market crashed. Now, as Charles Arthur reports in the Guardian, most major PC manufacturers have stopped making these tiny machines. The last holdouts were the Taiwanese firms Acer and Asus. Both say they won't build any netbooks in 2013.

What killed the netbook? Arthur's smart piece offers three plausible suspects: First, PC makers began making better, cheaper laptops, which made for stronger competition against netbooks. Second, PC makers discovered that netbooks were a terrible business — after paying Microsoft a licensing fee for Windows, manufacturers weren't making any money on cheap computers. And finally, there was the rise of tablets; once machines like the iPad came along, people lost interest in $400 netbooks.

These are all plausible theories, but I think Arthur is a bit too reluctant to tie the whole story together and issue a blistering indictment against the netbook's assassin. If you study the PC industry over the past five years, you find only one company that had the means, motive and opportunity. Apple killed the netbook, more or less single-handedly, and we should all be grateful for it.

Netbooks were terrible machines, a technological blight that threatened to become the future of computing. They had awful, nearly unusable keyboards, very slow processors, and they ran versions of Windows or Linux that were a trudge to use on tiny screens. Yet despite their awfulness, they were embraced by the world's largest tech firms — Intel, Microsoft, HP, Dell and Lenovo were all gaga for them.

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