No matter what stats you look at, netbooks – once the model of ‘everyman’ computing – are stagnating at an alarming rate. But could Windows 8 breathe new life into a dying breed?
A while ago now I wrote a rather scathing piece about netbooks – a view that didn’t turn out to be wholly popular.
That was fine and not altogether surprising – netbooks were successful for a reason. But nearly a year on the same argument applies: netbooks haven’t got any better for years, and sales have slumped because of it.
Some have put the slump in netbook sales down to tablets, but that’s a reductive view. If netbooks were improving at the same rate as tablets there would be more compelling reasons to buy them. Instead it’s a choice between the same old stuff and something interesting and new – it’s not much of an argument.
This stagnation can be set largely at the feet of Intel and Microsoft, both of which have seen netbooks as an inconvenience and have sought to limit them at every turn. But the concept of netbooks – cheap, portable and easy-to-use computers – remains an excellent one, and I believe Windows 8 (to be launched later this year) could hold the secret to serious progress.
Windows 8 will provide the freedom to innovate…
The key to why Windows 8 could prove so pivotal lies in the technology it supports. Up to now Windows has only ever worked on ‘x86’ processors; the kind produced by Intel and rival AMD. But Windows 8 will introduce support ARM processors, as found in smartphones and tablets the world over.
The beauty of ARM processors, besides being comparatively cheap, efficient and increasingly powerful, is that there isn’t a monopoly on producing them. ARM, a British company based in Cambridge (and a British success story) designs chips and licenses its designs to third parties.
The licensees are then free to tinker and tweak, adding their own technology along the way, to produce something bespoke and unique. Consequently there’s lots of competition and no one can (besides ARM at a distance) dictate the terms of what and can’t be done.
…if Microsoft lets it happen
With a bit of luck and gumption this should leave companies free to innovate more widely. A glance at the tablet market shows hints at what might be possible. Asus, the company that started the netbook ball rolling in the first place, has seen a modicum success with the Asus Eee Pad Transformer and Transformer Prime Android tablets.
Setting aside the outrageous name, these tablets have won hearts and minds by offering a hybrid tablet and netbook experience. But Android was never really intended to be used like a PC – it’s awkward and cumbersome in places and apps are designed for fingers, not keyboards and touchpads.
Windows 8, on other hand, is designed to meld the best of tablets and computers. Whether it lives up to this remains to be seen, but it seems tailor-made for the likes of the Transformer.
None of this is a fait accompli – Microsoft would have to accept a smaller cut to ensure the affordability netbooks have enjoyed. But whether it’s a netbook or something similar with a different name, I hope Windows 8 revives the spirit of the netbook and innovation.