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Posted on October 25th, 2011 by Mike Jennings

Will tablets suffer the same fate as netbooks?

Asus Eee PC 701When did you see your first netbook? I spotted a fellow commuter pecking at the Asus Eee PC 701 not long after its October 2007 debut, and I was impressed: powerful enough for basic tasks and smaller than any laptop I’d ever seen, it seemed like a genuine innovation.

Fast forward, and I spot my first iPad: on the Tube, its user oblivious to the envious gawping of fellow travellers. For me, it had a similar effect, heralding the arrival of another exciting, innovative type of product.

That’s not the only parallel between netbooks and tablets but, as far as I can see, others aren’t nearly so positive. The netbook’s story has been a sad one: that initial flurry of excitement withered by staid products, precious little evolution and a stagnant market.

Look beneath the iPad – which is still a premium product – and the tablet market could suffer from many of the same problems.

The signs are already there: the market is flooded with a host of shoddy, near-identical products from established tech brands, no-name newcomers and bandwagon-riding outsiders, and innovation is hard to find.

Pierre Cardin iPhone 4

Look under the hood of almost every tablet and you’ll find similar components, with cheaper models boasting obsolete hardware that’s not good enough to run Angry Birds, let alone the more demanding software currently being churned out by eager developers. Uninspiring design dominates the exterior, with cheap iPhone and iPad ripoffs dominating the market.

Almost all of them run Android and, in almost all cases, they disappoint the user with a litany of problems: build quality is often poor, screens are grainy or, even worse, made with unresponsive resistive technology. Plenty don’t have access to the Android Market, instead using an awful third-party store or making do without any legitimate way to install new software.

It’s a familiar story for those who’ve followed the netbook market: shoddy build quality and screens were found across dozens of devices, and a lack of hardware innovation meant they were also of limited use – and soon overshadowed by low-powered laptops.

There’s still hope for tablets. Apple’s forging its own wildly successful path but, away from iOS, only a handful of manufacturers, such as Sony and Samsung, are forging ahead with innovative products. Microsoft, meanwhile, is placing plenty of stock in Windows 8.

Will that be enough to help tablets avoid the same fate of netbooks? It’s still a growing market – tablets have just overtaken netbook sales for the first time – but there’s a big chance it could head in the wrong direction if more people buy, and are disappointed by, sub-standard products. Perhaps Sony exec Mike Abary was right back in 2008: a “race to the bottom” might seem tempting but, in the long run, it does more harm than good.

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27 Responses to “ Will tablets suffer the same fate as netbooks? ”

  1. TheBigM Says:
    October 25th, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    Netbooks have fundamental disadvantages – small screens and resolutions and uncomfortably small keyboards make them unpleasant to use for long periods of time and limit their use cases. Tablets have a wide variety of use cases where sensory consumption (viewing/listening) are the main things. Use cases involving serious interaction can occur when docked with a keyboard and maybe a mouse.

    The simple separating fact: one is bigger than the other. However in general, I still think an ultraportable laptop is much more useful and long-lived than any tablet.

  2. Steve Says:
    October 25th, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    Surely, as you allude to, the problem for netbooks was that low power laptops were almost as cheap, and pretty much as good as, if not hugely better, in most areas.

    I have a tablet, and I’m still not sure what I really use it for.

    Other than that, the end of tablets will presumably only occur when there is something better or similar and cheaper on available.

    I remember seeing lots of things about OLED screens stating that they could be folded or rolled up when not in use.
    A capacative OLED screen that either leverages the power of a phone, or actually has its own components in a somehow foldable form would be a great innovation.

  3. Zippy204 Says:
    October 25th, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    “I have a tablet, and I’m still not sure what I really use it for.” DITTO.
    My BB Playbook is a nice small device I can carry in light briefcase and show customers photos/videos of my products and warehouse. Also it is an easy way to access to access internet/email while on the move during the day, as my laptop is left in the hotel.
    I do not watch videos or play games so I am not sure what else I can do with it. It seems an expensive piece of kit for my needs even though it has come in useful.
    Apple have done a great job at creating a must-have item but it is a bit of a case of the emperor’s new clothes and I cannot really see how it will differ from netbooks in the long run.

  4. JohnAHind Says:
    October 25th, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    You are comparing chalk and cheese: the “netbook” just like the new “ultrabook” is a purely marketing category. They are both really just laptops distinguished only by price-point. In contrast the tablet is a genuinely new product: new interface, new OS, new processor chip, new application model, new business model. The last point has not been widely understood yet: the use of ARM-based chips gives an open hardware model like Microsoft, but at the chip level. Manufacturers will be able to integrate components at the chip level using ARM cores and IP from other sources. Thus they will be free to integrate and innovate out of the Intel/AMD duopolistic straight-jacket.

    My prediction is that tablets are the future. It is laptops and even desktops that are in danger.

  5. Mark Says:
    October 25th, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    The ‘problem’ with tablets is that they were simply a notebook defined by their components and price point.

    Tablets are something new. The next ‘big thing’ will be when we get away from having an inflexible, flat screen. Projectors won’t work in daylight, so we’ve got folding stuff (not aware of much development in this) or a wearable screen (e.g. in glasses). There should be some interesting crossover in technology with electronic viewfinders in mirrorless cameras – very tiny screens with a very high resolution.

  6. TheBigM Says:
    October 25th, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    @JohnAHind – netbooks are distinguished with ultrabooks not just by price but also relative power (these are more than powerful enough for pretty much every task other than serious gaming and video editing). They can even do light gaming, especially once ivy bridge is out. The main different however is size. A 10″ netbook is too small IMO but keyboards start being decent from 13″ onwards.

  7. David Wright Says:
    October 26th, 2011 at 5:40 am

    I saw my first netbook in the wild in November 2010. I saw my first iPad in the wild in February 2011.

    I have met 2 people who have iPads and among my friends, I don’t know anyone who has an iPad (or other tablet, for that matter). The same for netbooks, nobody I know has bought one.

    But, then again, they generally buy a new computer every 10 years, so they buy something reasonably powerful and use it until it can’t be used any more.

    From my friends and family, probably about 10% of them have smartphones.

    My girlfriend’s Nokia 6100’s battery failed last week. I lent her my iPhone, she hated it! She couldn’t wait for the new battery to turn up and she could get rid of the “toy” and get her phone back.

  8. James Says:
    October 26th, 2011 at 9:47 am

    Netbooks are much more capable than tablets. The problem is manufactures who can make more money by pumping out a me-too product or produce the same netbook as last year with cheaper components (while not dropping the price) than taking a risk and innovating. I remember reading when they were launched Intel were limiting the spec that Atom based netbooks could ship with. I had some hope with AMD netbooks, at least with they came equipped with slightly better graphics and HDMI ports so they could be used as a poor mans media centre but they haven’t innovated much beyond that either and ion means that they don’t have that just to themselves anymore. I think the problem is by definition netbooks are cheap were as something like the ipad is ridiculously expensive and there’s a lot more money to be made there.

  9. milliganp Says:
    October 26th, 2011 at 10:51 am

    Tablets generally do slightly less than a mobile phone but on a bigger screen. The challenge is they are not a phone, not a media player and not a PC; they do most of what people do with these devices but are not sufficient to replace any one of them.
    However the screen is big enough to display photos, watch iPlayer and browse the web. They are a dilemma because they are a general purpose vertical app device.

  10. JohnFair Says:
    October 26th, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    I’d be hard pushed to see the point of a tablet – I have a netbook which is the main excuse for me to carry the computer rucksack with me on the way to work and back. It mainly gets used for Word 2010 documents and OneNote while on the bus but I have used Excel and Power Point at various times at work. I really don’t like the soft keyboards on tablets (or Smart Phones) all that much and I use my ‘phone as a e-book reader.

    Tablets are just the wrong size for me!

  11. JohnAHind Says:
    October 26th, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    @JohnFair: Tablets should be characterised by not *needing* keyboards rather than by not *having* them. Models with keyboards are already available and Bluetooth or USB keyboards can be used with most models. As for screen size, surely there is no difference there between netbook-class laptops and tablets?

  12. creechitup Says:
    October 26th, 2011 at 11:51 pm

    @JohnAHind: But despite the differences in interface/processor/OS/applications, the original question still remains : what are tablets actually used for? It’s uniqueness, and it’s potential for innovation doesn’t mean it automatically fulfils function. It’s hard to see how tablets can fully replace desktops/laptops at work apart from sending/receiving email. They’re awesome when i’m sitting on the couch, but I find it very tough to write long documents/presentations/emails, edit spreadsheets, design artwork, and process data on a tablet.

  13. Gary Hughes Says:
    October 27th, 2011 at 8:48 am

    I often fail to understand why people are so obsessed with insisting one product will replace another. Tablets are great, they have their uses, ditto netbooks. Pc’s and laptops equally have their uses. I work in engineering and would have a hard time running a large spreadsheet, cad program or even an accounts program such as Sage on a tablet. I can run them on my netbook. Fashion, pah!

  14. John @ IT Donut Says:
    October 27th, 2011 at 9:06 am

    It’s a funny one, isn’t it? I still have many more uses for my cheap, capable netbook than for my tablet, depite many commentators declaring them ‘dead’ or ‘dying’.

    But other commenters are right: at the end of the day, a netbook is the same as a laptop, just smaller.

    A tablet, on the other hand, is a new way of doing things. And I think tablets are still a bit of a solution looking for a problem. Give it some more time, and I think we’ll see lots more innovative uses for them.

  15. Phil Hutchinson Says:
    October 27th, 2011 at 9:53 am

    I have an Asus EeePad. I like it, I use it, but the thing is I neither like it enough nor use it enough to feel that it was worth the £400 I spent on it. The problem is, if you have a decent laptop then you do your work on that; if you have a decent smartphone (I have an HTC Desire S which I got for under £10 per month on contract from Orange) you end up replying to emails on that, when you are away from your pc as well as the odd bit of browsing. Indeed, decent smartphones are easier to type on than tablets. What is left for tablet use? In the end the thing my tablet is really useful for, the thing it is better than anything else at doing, is as an ebook reader. I’m an academic and I can get loads of free ebooks in PDF format. The Kindle just can’t hack it when it comes to PDF ebooks. Moreover, you don’t want to sit at your pc to read a book of an evening and a smartphone screen is just too small. This is when my tablet seems worth having. But £400 for an ebook reader is too much.
    Maybe the Amazon Fire is what I really need, or something similar. If Adobe were smart they’d get together with HTC or Samsung or Nokia and release an Adobe branded Ebook reader. Universities would end up buying these for staff as students move to electronic submission of course work and libraries push for more digitised content.

  16. Smurf Says:
    October 27th, 2011 at 10:08 am

    I had a “netbook” before netbooks were invented (a Sharp MM1110 if anyone is interested, an early WinXP machine slimmer than the Macbook Air as it happens) and currently also have a Dell Mini9.

    Innovation or processing power was never the point of a netbook, any more than it’s the point of a tablet.

    Portability and functionality in a compact package is. The only significant difference between a tablet and a netbook is the input system, something the netbooks with the reversible touchscreens seek to blur.

    As for shoddy construction of netbooks and tablets, at one time there were plenty of shoddy laptops around too because they were pitched at a pricepoint that undercut the likes of Compaq and HP, and forced the premium manufacturers to bring their own prices down. The same arguably happened with desktop PCs too.

    Tablet specs seem to have leveled out, components are getting there too, but the big difference to my mind is the pace of development of Android from cut-down mobile phone OS to something approaching a full Linux OS. As soon as it slows to a rate that doesn’t mean the tablets actually in the shops are already out-of-date, I think you’ll find the really shoddy kit will vanish, and the better manufacturers will make decent tablets at a reasonable price…

    And Apple will continue in their own little bubble.

  17. Charles R Says:
    October 27th, 2011 at 10:51 am

    The thing that limited the development of the netbook was Microsoft’s policy on putting XP on them, and the fact most consumers wanted the laptops to run Windows.
    Microsoft dictated the memory, drive size, and screen size, etc.

  18. Charles R Says:
    October 27th, 2011 at 10:55 am

    netbooks. Sorry. Once the netbooks ran Windows, consumers could see that there were low priced laptops that would do more for the same money or less.

  19. Trevor Chenery Says:
    October 27th, 2011 at 11:14 am

    Having read the above all I can say is that Samsung NC20 running WinXP(netbook/mini laptop or whatever is gem) Small. excellent keyboard and 13.3″screen, quick, great storage, the perfect on-the-go-work tool.

    What’s not to like! What can Sammy replace it with.

  20. JohnAHind Says:
    October 27th, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    I do not have a tablet yet either – it is still too early. My hope is that the Android/ARM architecture will pull a paradigm shift similar to the shift from mainframes to minicomputers or minicomputers to PCs. In other words it will get a foothold in smartphones and tablets and then steadily move up the heirarchy to take over the whole computing landscape. The benefits of this would be an open source OS and an open hardware platform at the chip level.

    In this light, application incompatability is actually a benefit, it gives an opportunity to start again and to do it better this time!

  21. Brachy8 Says:
    October 27th, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    I have recently purchased a 7″ ViewPad tablet device which I have found to be first class in most respects. ‘Phone built in, good quality screen, for me, the optimum size. (10″ is too big in my view). Drawbacks are doesn’t run Flash, for me no biggie, battery life 2 days with high usage. I am definitely hooked on it. It is Android and has full access to the Market etc.

  22. Mark Says:
    October 27th, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    I also have a tablet (an Asus Transformer) and don’t really know what it’s for. It’s a fantastic e-book reader, but the new Kindle Fire – i f it can finally handle pdfs properly – will fill that niche better and cheaper.

  23. Mark Says:
    October 28th, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    I also have a strong feeling that Windows 8, being so totally tablet-centric, is going to arrive at the quayside just in time to see the boat sink :D

  24. Roger Andre Says:
    October 29th, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    Tablets, netbooks, smart phones, laptops, and PCs all hit a sweet spot with usable form factors and decent choice to match a users taste. It won’t be long before a netbook will run with i7 like power/

  25. Richard Says:
    October 31st, 2011 at 9:57 am

    Surely it’s about horses for courses. I’m now an iPad user and travel for work and to various offices at least three days a week. I’ve ditched the laptop now and while out can do everything I need to with the iPad. That doesn’t mean everyone can though – it depends what work you do. For me the small compromises in functionality are massively outweighed by the weight, battery life, instant on, charger size and the fact that it has also replaced my paper notebook. When at home I use a mix of the iPad and desktop PC. The only real limitations are my company’s slow to change IT policies.

  26. Andrew Holder Says:
    November 3rd, 2011 at 8:06 am

    I use an iPad2 and its changed my life. I don’t use it for work though. I mainly use it for walking and sailing and it gives me a huge array of proper Ordnance Survey maps and marine charts. It is the perfect format for these. You wouldn’t want to carry a netbook slung around your neck on a strap, nor stick a netbook to the side of the cockpit with Velcro! For me, nothing else will do.

  27. Nigel Clegg Says:
    November 8th, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    I have a Toshiba NB550D netbook, which I take almost everywhere with me. With its small size and long battery life it is ideal for note taking, internet, e-mail and backing up photographs taken during a day’s work. It is also small enough to use on flights to start writing up reports. It even charges my mobile phone and iPod!

    I would far rather use my Portege R700 laptop, but it is too big to use on most aircraft. Worse still, I need to carry expensive camera equipment with me, and most budget airlines will only allow one item of cabin baggage, and so expect me to put either my laptop or cameras in the hold. I can easily fit the netbook into my camera bag, and at the price, if it gets broken I can afford to buy another one.

    The Toshiba Netbook is powerful enough for simple applications, and the ability to use it all day without charging is a real bonus.

    Tablets may look pretty, but they are much less versatile, and I doubt would be able to back up 20 GB or more of raw files whilst running Word and Excel.


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