Well, 2011 is being touted as the year of the tablet, on the back of the quite phenomenal rise of the iPad, with a slew of models, mostly running Android, being announced. At the same time Lenovo has speculated that the rise of the tablet will see the end of the netbook.
Not quite true. Asus's original Eee netbook was a game changer. Low powered, light, versatile, cheap. Made an ideal second computer to take travelling, especially given its use of SSD in place of a conventional HDD. The use of a linux based operating system meant that it could provide reasonable performance on fairly low powered hardware.
In fact I thought that this might spread a mainstream adoption of linux but it was not to be. While manufacturers jumped on the netbook bandwagon, they either went for a dumbed down linux interface or a version of XP or Windows 7 that had the effect of turning usable hardware into what was a low performing and limited laptop.
This probably made a lot of people's netbook experiences less than optimal. Yes, sure they were a bit cheaper than a full laptop, but the environment wasn't quite so rich, and performance was a bit less, yet at the same time the hobbled linux interfaces seemed to restrict flexibility.
In short, a missed opportunity. Provide an interface of the quality and sophistication of Ubuntu 10.10, and people who want a lightweight machine would be pretty happy.
This of course begs the question - who wants a lightweight machine?
The ipad experience is instructive. The iPad is a content access device - ie you can surf the web , read blogs, ebooks and the like, but it's aimed a content consumption rather than content creation, be it blogging, tweeting, serious email, writing documents and the like. Unlike a dedicated device such as an ebook reader, which is optimised to do one and only one task well, the ipad is designed to allow a range of content consumption based activities.
A netbook is on the other hand a general purpose computer, one that can run software that allows you to do interactive work. While you can of course course use it purely as a content consumption device, its general purpose nature allows you to run any program compatible with the host operating environment.
While both the ipad and the netbook have been touted as cloud access devices, ie devices in which the majority of applications used would be cloud based - eg gmail, google docs, windows live, in the case of the netbook this didn't turn out to be the case due to the use of operating systems that were designed as stand alone and didn't need always on connectivity.
Ipads are a purer case with all these applications that poll the web for content - the iphone/ipod touch model, and while they can be used offline, they don't really shine as offline devices. So while you can use a netwbook without a network connection or occasional use of a 3G modem an ipad really needs pervasive network access, either over 3G or wi-fi.
And this is an important distinction - a device like an ipad can seem an ideal second computer - lightweight, easy to take to meetings preloaded with the meeting papers, and having some capability for browsing and email. But it does assume connectivity.
However, the ipad has virutues of its own as a serious as opposed to recreational device.
Without wanting to seem sarcastic an ipad can seem an ideal replacement for a pile of A4 and a notepad, or even a PalmPilot - enough capability for diary checking and the odd email, plus the ability to do some background fact checking - exactly what you need for meetings.
Laptops tend to be a pain for meetings - the screen orientation's all wrong, they're bulky, they give people something to hide behind, and tap away doing their online shopping if you're being boring. Netbooks are no better. In fact in some ways they can be worse, with smaller screens and poorer battery life.
On the other hand if you need to take extensive notes, work in a library, and carry the damn thing about with you a netbook comes into its own. You can write extensive notes easily, cross check material on the web, use the library catalogue, email, blog, tabulate information on a spreadsheet, and do a whole lot of things.
But then how many people need to do this? Not everybody. Probably fewer people than who want to just check the news, and read a few blogs or an e-book on the way to work. And given the startup costs to make these things its not surprising that manufacturers want a share of the tablet market. If they get it right they'll sell a truck load of the things and be able to charge a premium.
On the other hand a netbook is always going to look like a cheap lightweight laptop.