Feature wars and computing shifts: Netbook vs. Tablet

Just three years ago, I was writing plenty of posts on netbooks; those small portable notebook computers that were priced between $200 and $500. Sales grew quickly, mainly because of the value of a netbook. The Microsoft-powered Windows(s msft) devices offered a solid amount of features for a relatively low price as compared to traditional laptops. And then Apple introduced the iPad(s aapl) in January 2010.
What happened to netbook sales? They reversed momentum, being surpassed by tablet sales in the second quarter of this year. And I generally stopped writing about them.
Others haven’t though. The lgpOnTheMove site, authored by a frequent commenter here, recently put together a list of 101 things you can do with a netbook. I still have a few netbooks and I’ve looked the list over: I don’t see any inaccuracies and it’s filled with a bunch of undeniably useful capabilities. Here’s a small sampling of the list:

  • Boot any x86 operating system when using a multiple-boot partition
  • Run and install other MS software (Works, Visio, Project, MapPoint)
  • Plug in your USB thumb drive to move/browse files
  • Attach a wireless trackball for ultimate ergonomic comfort
  • Easily swap your battery for a second and continue working without looking for an outlet
  • Install and run proprietary x86 business software applications you use at work
  • Rip your DVD movies to a hard drive and watch on the go

The reason for the list is to educate people as to what a $400 netbook investment can return. The author doesn’t think that adding a keyboard to an iPad or Android (s GOOG) tablet is enough to rival the netbook experience:

“It amazes me the number of folks who continue to suggest that netbooks are underpowered, useless and cheap toys compared to more expensive slates. And this viewpoint reaches peak when folks see a slate docked with a fancy clamshell-style keyboard/case combination, entertaining the idea that it can even replace a notebook! Yet quite the contrary is the truth.”

I totally understand the point being made, but I also think there’s a bigger point that’s being missed. For starters, many of the listed items aren’t exclusive to netbooks. I picked out a few here:

  • Edit, author and upload videos to YouTube
  • Get 8 hours of real-world run time on a single charge
  • Connect with external audio equipment for DJ applications
  • View two web pages side by side
  • Install and run Google Earth

Aside from the battery point — and many tablets exceed 8 hours of run-time on a single charge — all of the examples I chose can be done through mobile apps on a tablet. There are some listed functions completely exclusive to a netbook, but mainly because they’re exclusive to a desktop operating system, which is what I alluded to by saying “there’s a bigger point that’s being missed.”
Netbooks aren’t a new product genre, or the evolution of a new computing paradigm. They’re simply the same old computing products in a smaller package with a smaller price tag. Tablets, on the other hand, have created a new class of mobile product, although it could be argued that they’re an extension of the smartphone market. Regardless, the bigger point here is that computing is changing and netbooks haven’t changed with it.
The enterprise may be different, but average consumers today don’t want to plug in USB drives, swap SD cards or futz with a desktop operating system on a mobile device. Consumers want the “computing” to take place behind a simple interface that’s intuitive and carefree. Tasks are now broken down into a plethora of purpose-driven applications instead massive suites of software. And people want this new computing experience when they’re sitting, standing, walking, or riding; not when they have a desk or a lap to work on with a computer.
Anyway, it is an interesting list and for people that have traditional computing needs, I agree that netbooks are an attractive, low-cost option. I’m curious if our readers agree that computing is changed in the way I think do. Thoughts?