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Windows 8 could revive the ‘netbook’

Woman typing on a netbook

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.

Comments
Profile photo of wavechange
Member

I can see the value of cheap and cheerful computers. Portability is important an carrying around an expensive laptop is risky. But does it have to be Windows?

Let’s keep the netbook and use this as a reason to promote other operating systems that could provide greater speed, higher reliability and lower cost.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

Andy

I appreciate your input here and on the Which? podcast, but don’t you think it is time to re-launch the netbook and Microsoft?

The name netbook is synonymous with a small (very useful) computer, but one that has very poor performance. For me, Microsoft is, and has always been, a money-grabbing producer of poorly designed and unreliable software.

I well remember Datsun cars (made by Nissan and sold as Datsun in the UK), which had an unenviable reputation for rusting away very quickly, which was a shame because their engines were good. In the UK they were re-launched under the name Nissan, about the time when the rust problem had been overcome. I’ve never owned either, but recognise that Nissan quickly developed a good brand reputation and has maintained it.

I believe that Microsoft should rebrand itself and particularly its Windows operating system, but only when it has dealt with the remaining problems. Let’s not pretend that netbooks are ultra books because they cannot pretend to be proper laptops and be cheap. Give them another generic name. I agree with you about avoiding silly names and as many have commented, RIM deserves the consequences of launching a tablet called the BlackBerry Playbook.

Profile photo of Andy Vandervell
Member

I don’t think Microsoft has anything to gain from changing brands. Microsoft is by no means perfect, but it’s a far cry from a rusting Datsun.

On netbooks, though, you have a point. In fact, a year or so ago there was an abortive attempt to launch ‘smartbooks’ – essentially netbooks with ARM processors, but running Linux. They never got off the ground as the operating systems they chose to use were rubbish. I guess you’d disagree, but I don’t think Windows is a bad operating system. I’ve only recently switched to Macs, but it wasn’t because I didn’t like Windows – I just like the Apple hardware! I like the software, too, but it’s the combination of the two that make it worthwhile.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

Oh, well. We will have to wait to see how Windows 8 performs on a low specification machine such as an inexpensive netbook, but my limited experience with XP, Vista and W7 suggests that XP was the only sensible choice on anything other than a high spec machine, in agreement with what others have told me.

It is disappointing to read about problems with Linux, since open source software does have its advantages.

I agree with your comments about Apple software and hardware and W7 is certainly a great improvement over Vista.

Member
J900525105 says:
14 February 2012

Need help iam new to all of this I bought a laptop and it came windows7home premium by mistake downloaded window 9 is there a way of retreiveing windows 7 back and how thanks

Member
Belated fanboy says:
17 February 2012

Windows 9?
Don’t think that exists.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

It fell through a worm hole in the space time continuum.