Who killed the netbook?

The netbook’s brief success was also its swan song

By , ITworld |  Hardware, Netbooks

The netbook has been murdered. The concept of an inexpensive computing device with high value for the third world has been sufficiently co-opted so as to make the category meaningless. Some called netbooks a sub-category of "ultra-light" or "sub-notebooks", but netbooks became legitimized by the announcement of the $100 OLPC laptop.

Lots of people wanted to see the original concept of a $100 laptop work. However, hardware and operating systems vendors saw no financial opportunity in that concept. Therefore, netbooks died the death of a thousand cuts, and netbooks as a conceptual computing category have been nearly wiped out. The netbook made the industry take a serious look at value. What has transpired reflects that. We have more lightweight computing platform choices than ever before. The netbook's brief success was also its swan song.

For a seeming few brief moments, netbooks caused the tech industry to quake: astoundingly inexpensive alternatives to comparatively bloated and expensive personal systems —laptops, desktops and notebooks— that could be affordable even and especially in the third world.

Conventional wisdom: A $100 computer can't be any good. Can it?

In late 2005, the only computer found for $100 was stolen, dead, or ancient enough to require Windows 95. A real and functional computer for a $100 was a dream, but also made people wonder what sacrifices might need to be made to offer such a comparatively inexpensive machine.

Value upended

The sub-notebook category had a number of expensive members in 2005. There was Sony's PCG-1CX, which in 2000, featured 64K of memory, Windows 98, and a 16x9 aspect ratio screen with a whopping 4GB disk drive. Linus Torvalds, inventor of the Linux kernels used one. Toshiba had its Librettos, and the Psion had a comparatively tiny form factor. At some point, these ultra-lights had a built-in Ethernet connection, and became netbooks.

The redefinition of the netbook was the progeny of the MIT Media Lab's Nicolas Negroponte. Negroponte, along with the UN's Kofi Anan, announced a system to be called the One Laptop Per Child, or OLPC in late 2005. Their goal was simple: a $100 highly functional laptop—computing affordable by all. The specifications were designed to help bring computing to the third world, where $100 at the time was a big number. Netbooks were soon envisioned to follow along the feature set of the OLPC.

That's when all hell broke loose.

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