Falling Netbook Sales: Blame Smartphones, Not Just the iPad

Last Updated Sep 20, 2010 3:17 PM EDT

A number of analysts and tech blogs pushed the story recently that Apple's (APPL) iPad had killed netbook sales for companies like HP (HPQ) and Dell (DELL). The problem with this argument is that iPad sales figures don't stack up against the corresponding decline in netbook sales. The bigger picture is that smartphones are increasingly coming to replace netbooks as multifunctional, mobile computing tools.

2009 was a great year for netbooks, with sales rising as much as 70% year over year during the best months. As these figures show, the market for netbooks reached around $11.4 billion by the end of 2009, which breaks down to roughly 33 million units worldwide. But even before the announcement of the iPad, industry analysts were predicting this would be the pinnacle for netbooks.

The selling points for the netbook were price and size. By the end of 2009 it was clear that these advantages were being squeezed from both sides. Cheaper notebooks were offering a more complete, powerful computer at the sub $500 price point. On the other end, smartphones made it possible to have a complete web browsing experience without the hassle of third unit. As more feature phone users upgraded to smart phones, netbooks were bound to take a hit.

Tablet computers clearly had an effect on netbooks. The most widely repeated quote comes from the Wall Street Journal this week, which quoted Best Buy (BBY) CEO Brian Dunn saying that iPads cannibalized as much as 50% of notebook sales, especially netbooks. But NPD, the research company behind the report which started this whole story, estimates that number to be closer to 15-20%. That sounds like a more reasonable number, when you consider the iPad has only moved between 3-4 million units.

The netbook was really a transitional device that never offered much functionality. If consumers want a cramped keyboard, small screen and lousy battery life, they now have their choice of smartphones. While it will continue to exist at major electronic retailers for a while longer, the netbook will quickly be squeezed off the shelf at carrier outlets. In its final obituary, the iPad will get a mention, but it will hardly be the whole story.

Image from Flickr user Roland
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  • Ben Popper

    Ben Popper writes at the intersection of culture and technology. His work has been published in the NY Times, Washington Post, Fast Company, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and many others. He lives at www.benpopper.com.