Why HP, Dell and Toshiba Aren’t Benefitting Fully From Netbook Sales

With sales up 43 percent year-over-year in the first quarter of 2010, according to Gartner — the highest rate of growth in nearly eight years — the mobile PC market is flexing its muscle. And it’s no coincidence that of the top five vendors in terms of market share, the two showing the most growth — Acer and ASUS — were among the first to embrace the netbook market.

WW Mobile PC Vendor Unit Shipment Estimates for 1Q10 (in thousands)
1Q10 Shipments 1Q09 Shipments Growth Rate
HP 9458.1 7676.3 23.21%
Acer 9122.5 6147.6 48.39%
Dell 5662.4 4254.3 33.10%
Toshiba 4573.9 3395.3 34.71%
ASUS 4324 2030.5 112.95%
Other 16233.1 10921.9 48.63%

Netbook sales grew 71 percent from the prior year quarter after cresting 36.3 million units in 2009 — a figure expected to top 58 million in 2010, estimates ABI Research. So why isn’t the strong netbook market doing more to help sales growth of HP (s hpq), Dell (s dell) and Toshiba? Answers vary based on the company in question. I uncovered one of them yesterday, while attending the Netbook Summit.

Eric Tilton, manager of networks and engineering for the Fresno Unified School District, told me his organization helped refine early HP netbook designs to optimize them for the education market. He suggests that HP netbooks are poised to do well in this market — over the next four to five years. Schools commonly run though long budgetary cycles, so HP can’t reap rewards in this market any faster. Consumers don’t face such cyclical fiscal constraints, yet HP netbooks can be pricey for the general public — last time I checked, a fully decked-out HP netbook could run you $700, near the current average selling price ($732) of a full notebook.

Toshiba, meanwhile, only offers two netbook models to choose from — one of which, I should note, I bought last year and absolutely love it — the netbook has a trackpad larger than that of some notebooks I’ve used. But as computers become smaller, they also become more personal, a thesis presented in our GigaOM Pro report, “The Future of Netbooks” (subscription required). And with only two netbook models, Toshiba can’t compete on personal choice with Acer and ASUS, each of which offer scores of different models.

On the other hand, Dell netbooks do provide many customization options. The base netbooks typically start at under $300, which sounds like a good deal initially, but these often run on the Intel (s intc) Atom Z-series processors, which are really intended for lower performing devices. To Dell’s credit, changing the specifications is an easy, though time-consuming, experience. Often, it results in a machine comparable in price or performance to a specific ASUS or Acer model that could be had without the configuration hoops.

While all the mobile computer vendors are enjoying growth, there’s something to be said when you’re first to a new market. Assuming you implement your product plan well, you’re likely in the best position to reap the largest rewards.