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Mobile Killed the PC Star

Mobile Only: Week 44

Benjamin Robbins, an EMF member, is spending the next year working solely from a single mobile device. Each week he shares his thoughts and experience with us on what it means to be mobile-only.

The netbook is officially dead.
The last two remaining manufactures of netbook devices have decided to call it quits as of January 1. Netbooks, which were introduced in 2007 (the same year as the iPhone, coincidentally), were seen as the savior of the PC market. Analysts predicted large sales volumes for many years to come. Yet, after a short five-year run, this class of device is finished. The death of the netbook provides a microcosm that highlights the distinctions between the mobile experience and PCs and why the latter as a whole is on a path to suffer the same fate.

Netbooks were designed and marketed for the light duty work of web surfing, e-mail, and simple tasks—basically consumption activities. These are the same activities that are generally prescribed to mobile devices as well. As the adage goes, “Tablets are consumption devices.” This makes netbooks similar to tablets for intended use.

One of the arguments against netbooks was that they were limited in performance as compared to fully functioning PCs. To be fair, as much as people complained that netbooks were slow, it was usually due to pushing the bounds of intended use. People seemed to forget that netbooks just weren’t designed to do the heavy lifting. Once folks were operating in that PC context, they expected PC performance. Tablets are similarly “limited,” and yet their sales growth is on the opposite trajectory. People do not currently have the same functional expectations of tablets.

The limited screen size was another complaint against and reasoning for the decline of netbooks. With their initial 7- and then 10-inch screen size, netbooks have always been on the smaller side. Yet tablets and their “mini” counterparts have similar screen-size constraints and don’t suffer from the same critique. In fact, they are lauded for their portability.

Still another criticism of netbooks was that their initial operating system, Linux, didn’t allow users to run PC software such as Microsoft Office. This was overcome by putting Windows XP into service but yielded a less than ideal experience. Tablets are unable to run PC software as well, but because of the refreshing experience they provide are usually given a pass in this shortcoming. In fact, they are almost seen as being all the better for it as they have their own ecosystem and market of apps specifically optimized for the experience.

Netbooks are a great example to look to when people argue there is no difference between a laptop and a tablet with a keyboard. They say, “Aren’t they just the same thing?” No. Not even close. When you compare consumption experiences between a netbook and a tablet, there is a marked difference in experience and expectations. Mobile is so much more than a touch screen and a keyboard. The mobile experience is intuitive. The experience has been designed on what we have learned from years of user-centric design. The OS is secondary to the user experience. It blends into the background and brings user functions to the forefront. In one sense, apps take a much greater precedent over OS in mobility. On top of that, mobile offers the opportunity to be connected anytime, anywhere.

One of the main reasons that tablets win hands down over netbooks (or any class of PC for that matter) when it comes to consumption activities is the experience of instant on and self-explanatory use. Netbooks, despite being cheap and portable with longer-lasting batteries, were still PCs. They still needed to boot up. They still had the start-button context. They were still the PC experience. PC applications have become big and bloated (read crapplications) and weren’t necessarily designed for the minimum requirements of netbooks. Tablet apps, however, are designed to run on that class of hardware and be driven by touch. They therefore align with expectations and don’t present the same frustrations.

Perhaps the last hurrah for netbooks is that they provide us a chance to compare consumption activities on an almost apples-to-apples (pun intended) level with tablets. The end goal of the two devices is the same, yet the experience is vastly different. The life and death of netbooks offers interesting insight into the future of PCs. As tablet use continues to move from consumption tasks to creation tasks that are appropriately designed for the hardware and mobile experience, the PC itself, like netbooks, will also be deemed an unnecessary class of device.

Benjamin Robbins is co-founder and Principal at Palador, a firm that focuses on providing strategic guidance to enterprises in the areas of mobility, apps, and data. You can follow him on Twitter. Mr. Robbins resides in Seattle and blogs regularly at http://remotelymobileblog.com

One Comment

  1. Posted March 1, 2013 at 13:19 | Permalink

    Interesting how we used almost identical titles for very different perspectives. Great read!

    http://theemf.org/2010/05/18/will-we-say-in-five-years-that-mobile-killed-the-desktop-star/

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

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