The Netbooks Are Coming! But For Who?

10/02/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I am writing this post on a laptop that is no bigger than a bible you find next to a hotel bed. The screen measures 9-inches diagonally and the lilliputian keyboard requires my hands to be almost touching each other as I type. When I leave the New York City Starbucks I am sitting at I will toss the 2.2-pound system in my purse; I left the charger at home this morning, even though it weighs less than a pound, because the little guy gets 3 hours of battery life.

What I can do on this mini-notebook, which is priced under $350, is surf the Net (thus they are being called netbooks, by many). While I write this post in a word processing program, I frequently flip over to Firefox 3 (perhaps soon to be replaced with Google's Chrome) where I have my Facebook page open in one tab and Gmail open in another. I am also chatting with friends over AOL Instant Messenger and listening to streaming music over Pandora with a pair of headphones I have plugged in to one of the laptops few ports.

Here is what I cannot do with it. It doesn't have a DVD drive so watching a DVD or popping in a CD-ROM is out of the question. It has a limited 4GB solid state hard drive so I cannot store hoards of pictures or videos and I surely cannot run a video editing program with the amount of onboard processing power. For those tasks, I have larger, more expensive Sony VAIO laptop at home.

Size matters and small is in. Or at least laptop manufacturers are hoping it is because arriving this month from the likes of Lenovo and Dell (Acer, ASUS and HP already have their own minis on the market) are a slew of these very mini-notebooks - also dubbed netbooks, ultra-low-cost notebooks or more cleverly liliputers. The computer makers are betting that there is a need for inexpensive laptops with limited features.

The category was jump-started last year when Taiwanese computer maker ASUS introduced its $300 Eee PC. The Eee PC was a hit and 350,000 were sold in only a few months. ASUS might have been first out of the gate, but it didn't take long for the PC and industry giants to follow suit. And its easy to see why with research analysts at Gartner predicting netbooks sales to hit about 5.2 million globally this year and eight million in 2009.

I have seen (and reviewed) lots of mini-notebooks in the last few months and for many of the early tech adopters they have become all the rage. But my question has been: who are they really for? ASUS claimed its first Eee PC was meant as a first time PC for kids. Then HP hit the market with its sleek, silver Mini-Note 2133 and targeted the education market (at least in marketing). MSI did the same with its Wind. And Acer recently lowered its Aspire one to $349 for back to school shoppers.

But, despite being designed for use in education, about 70 percent of the market for cheap laptops is expected to be consumers, Gartner says. That's right the buying will lie with customers like me, who want a low-cost second or third PC or a product that's more than a smart phone, but half the size and feature set of a laptop.

I have also argued that they have appeal for the mobile professional. However, my father, a successful business man, bought an Eee PC a few months back. While he doesn't mind using it for a 3 hour train ride from New York City to Boston, his colleagues just don't see the point in it. They would rather take along the 15-inch Dell business laptop.

While I have been sitting here sipping my iced Latte and typing this post at least two men have approached me saying they love the small and "cute" laptop. One told me he would love to get one for his 10 year old son. The other told me he'd love one for himself to use for working on at the park. Maybe netbooks are for everyone. You tell me, are the netbooks coming for you?