2009 may be the year of the Netbook. But there's a big if.
Here's the choice: Will consumers buy a thin, light, relatively fast $1,800 MacBook Air or a thin, light, ultrasmall, not-as-fast $450 Hewlett-Packard Mini 1000 Netbook? (Correction: the HP Mini 1000 configuration cited here was originally stated incorrectly as $700.)
If many people, fully aware of this choice, opt for a Netbook then we have the foundation of, at the very least, a rethinking of the pricey ultraportable.
At most, we have many more consumers buying into the Netbook concept--particularly if 3G broadband wireless comes as a standard option.
Here's the dilemma in more detail: Do you want an ultralight subnotebook replete with a Core 2 Duo processor, 64GB solid-state drive, and 12-inch (or 13-inch) LED screen that will set you back at least $1,800?
Or do you want a Netbook with an Atom processor, 16GB solid-state drive (or 60GB or 120GB hard disk drive), and a 10-inch screen for $450 to $500? (Clarification: Netbooks are generally thought of as sub-$400 designs; but for comparison's sake, upscale Netbooks with 10.2-inch screens are cited here.)
The dimensions and weight are the key to both the Netbook and the ultraportable, and differentiate them from standard laptops. Both are small and light. But here's where Netbooks become disruptive. To date (that is, for at least the last 10 years), consumers have had to pay a big premium for smallness and thinness (and still do with the Air, Dell Latitude E4200, and Toshiba Portege, for example). With the Netbook, they don't. (The one obvious downside to Netbooks, however, is that they're too small--cramped screens and keyboards.)
Of course, the design and internals are different, but are they different enough? To rephrase the question posed above: Is a $2,500 13-inch MacBook Air with a 128GB solid-state drive (and no 3G) different enough from (or that much better than) a high-end $600 or $700 11-inch Netbook with a 32GB (or 64GB) solid-state drive and 3G? I would expect that most consumers (even ones that must have an ultraportable laptop) won't be able to justify paying an extra $1000-$2,000 for a MacBook Air- or Toshiba Portege-style design in the face of a compelling array of Netbook offerings. Especially if Netbooks (or a facsimile of the Netbook) start sporting larger screens.
Consumers will ultimately decide the fate of the Netbook of course--though it remains problematic whether PC suppliers will really push Netbooks in front of consumers that aggressively if Netbooks are eating into their laptop sales. Advanced Micro Devices or Via Technologies, however, could change this by aggressively promoting their newest silicon (AMD's Yukon and Via's Nano) for slick, upscale Netbook-like designs.