The "feature arms race" in new products is fundamental to our consumerism way of life: Product managers the world over create "good, better, best" product portfolios with an ever increasing number of features to justify ever higher prices. They build it and we buy it.
From Cuisinarts to computers, the technology arms race is on. In the case of Cuisinarts, these beautifully designed food processors have gotten increasingly more sophisticated and expensive. Indeed, while amazing, one can not ignore that for many jobs Cuisinarts do not perform as well as a beautifully designed $39 paring knife and with a lot less fuss.
Same with computers. Many people do need a powerful, full-featured device to do heavy computing. But many people do not. Even a $700 fully featured PC is more than many people need.
The brilliance of netbooks is that computer makers learned how to distill the device down to a few really important things that it does really well. For less than half the price of PC, you get the well designed "paring knife" of the PC world -- a high-functioning, low-stress, low-maintenance marvel.
The first time I saw the actual device, I fell in love -- it was like finding the perfect paring knife. It even inspired me to think of these trim little machines as a new class of "easy access, slick web browser devices" rather than an under-featured PC. Cleverly, most netbooks focus their hardware features and software on this "easy access web browser" mantra. They include a wireless card, a host of practical software and even a webcam for video chat.
And once you think about them as an easy access web-browsing device, you start to imagine a host of new services around communications and connectivity (it's no wonder that Verizon and Hewlett Packard have joined to market the HP netbook). For instance, netbooks are perfect for incorporating the new thinking around unified digital communications, a la Google Wave. Or, there could be new types of services that broadcast personalized interactive internet channels (the built-in web cam makes this fun). There can even be new advertising models or new content-consumption models.
If one extends this model further, one can even think of netbooks as the iPods of the PC world. Sure, there's the argument that netbooks don't do anything different than computers, so what's the point. But that's like saying Cuisinarts can do what paring knives can do. I suppose that's true but then there's something to be said for doing a job elegantly and simply. That's what paring knives and netbooks have in common. They have the right blend of features suitable for the job.
And that's why netbooks deserve respect. They bucked the trend by rejecting the typical approach of pimping out the machine with more and more features to justify higher prices. They focused on just the essentials and the growing market appeal of netbooks confirms the wisdom of that strategy.
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Judy Shapiro is senior VP at Paltalk and has held senior marketing positions at Comodo, Computer Associates, Lucent Technologies, AT&T and Bell Labs. Her blog, Trench Wars, provides insights on how to create business value on the internet.