According to the Financial Times quoting IDC, most of the growth on the laptop market comes from netbooks (small, lightweight PCs on Windows or Linux, destined first and foremost to browse the web – the most famous one is the adorable little Asus Eee PC, of which I am a proud owner). IDC expects them to represent as much as 11-12% of the laptop market in 2009.
This is interesting as the last figures I had seen from IDC last April were that laptops were already making for the vast majority of the consumer PC market (70% of home PC market in Europe). According to Liliputing, 70% of the netbook worldwide sales are in Europe, thanks to bundles and sponsored offers by telco providers looking to recoup their expensive 3G investments and hoping for a new growth path in a saturated mobile phone market : usually , you get the netbook for free or very cheap, and pay for 3G minutes or unlimited subscription deal. Apparently hardware companies such as Intel were expecting this segment to thrive mainly in developing countries, and were surprised at its success in developed countries.
These mini-notebooks can be perceived as a challenge for the games industry : lower performance, no video card, no DVD drive, reduced screen resolution, Linux OS on a good part of them, very little storage space (users are expected to use mostly web, cloud-based apps). It represents an extra step in the hard task of setting minimum specs requirements, which was already difficult if you wanted to have a game playable on average laptops (the jungle of integrated chipsets specs was already making it a difficult process).
But they also represent an opportunity for online games, as they might expand the PC user base and grant immediate access to the internet everywhere without necessarily a need for a Wi-Fi hotspot. Comparatively to an iPhone/smartphone , they have a bigger screen, a more convenient keyboard, can run Flash and are an open platform. The Eee doesn’t come with pre-installed games as far as I know (at least mine didn’t), but its tagline is “Easy to work, easy to learn, easy to play”, targeting people with little previous computing experience and selling them games as part of the experience.
This seems good news for accessibility in games, browser-based being the most obvious answer. Recently, we were talking to a developer and they were explaining that they wouldn’t want to make their game browser-based because they wanted to have particle effects. When you look at the percentage of downloads non completed for free to play games (on projects we worked on, we estimated it at 70% of attempted downloads), factor in the number of people who give up before even trying to download, and when you add to the mix this evolution in the hardware installed base, it really makes each particle in the particle effect very, very expensive in terms of customer acquisition costs. And consumer reluctance will probably only increase as downloading a client will become less and less common in a lot of areas other than gaming – Microsoft announced a few weeks ago a suite of web apps, Azure, as an answer to Google Docs, Joost has launched in September a browser-based app, only after having lost a lot of ground to Hulu, etc.
In any case, it will be interesting to see if the netbook trend will reinforce Europe’s current advance in browser-based games, or if the US will catch up as WiMax develops there and similar mobile broadband +netbook bundles will appear.
EDIT : Interestingly, we’re starting to see Android ports to netbooks. One step more toward a Google offensive on cloud-savvy OS for PCs?