It’s hard to imagine a product category more unwanted, unneeded, and unloved than the netbook. They were often bulky – despite their “small” size – underpowered, and built specifically to be “good enough” computers. The Guardian reports that both Asus and Acer, the final bastions of netbook production, will abandon the category once their existing inventory has been depleted. It seems that even the most prolific netbook manufacturers have realized that building cheap products doesn’t pay.
Netbooks were popular for a few years, dotting the retail space at Best Buy and Walmart and tempting would-be customers with their previously-unseen price tags. A Google Trends search shows that people tended to search for “netbook” the most during August and December – right before the school year and Christmas, respectively – lending credence to the idea that the cheap computers made good “right now” computers for students and graced a fair number of Christmas trees.
That changed this year. Netbook searches have been on a steady decline since December 2011, featuring a barely-noticeable bump during the Fall and then continuing to, well, fall.
Maintaining a low price was the main premise of netbooks from the beginning. The itty-bitty laptops weren’t purchased because of their sub-par internals, their plasticky exteriors, or their crummy displays. They were purchased because they were affordable even on a Ramen noodle budget and equally easy to replace.
Pinning the netbook’s demise on the rise of tablets and constriction of the PC market would be easy. Tablets are able to fill the netbooks’ role fairly well, especially with an attached keyboard, and are often built with better screens, similar battery life, and dead-simple operating systems that don’t get hung up on a piece of malware or bloatware. Yet tablets often cost more than netbooks – isn’t “cheap” supposed to make up for a product’s shortcomings?
Another cheap-but-good-enough product category is also witnessing a rapid decline: Ereaders. Even though these e-ink based devices boast bottom-barrel prices and, in the Kindle’s case, receive a huge marketing push from a massive retailer, the ereader as we know it may have already peaked. Again, the operating theory is that tablets and their all-purpose functionalities are devouring the market, devouring ereaders just as they have devoured laptops and netbooks.
Yet the “it’s the tablets, stupid” argument doesn’t work when applied to other categories. Take the PC market: Even with its continued decline, Apple has boasted that its own segment of the market has actually grown over the last few years. The gains haven’t been huge – unless you’re in a Starbucks or college campus you aren’t likely to witness a sea of Macs compared to no PCs – but they’re there. And if there’s one thing that every consumer and Internet commenter can agree on, it’s that Macs are more expensive than their Windows-running counterparts.
This shift isn’t so much about tablets “killing” industries – though that is happening – as it is about opting for better, more expensive products instead of their cheap and underpowered counterparts. A person could buy five Kindles for less than the price of an iPad, or two Windows-based laptops for every MacBook, but that doesn’t matter as much as it used to, despite the impending leap from the fiscal cliff and the other economic shit-storms we’re living in.
Will customers still purchase (or, perhaps more importantly, not purchase) an item because it’s out of their price range? Of course. There’s a reason why McDonald’s “restaurants” and generic-brand cereals exist, and it’s not because they’re delicious, it’s because that’s what families can afford.
As far as our gadgets go, “good enough” isn’t good enough. Cheap doesn’t excuse crappy. And thrifty seems to be losing the fight against “I want to use something that won’t make me release a string of curses that would make a sailor blush.” As much as people want or need to save money, low-performance tools whose only virtue is their price tag won’t fly anymore.