Allow me to present an opposing viewpoint on the latest trend in computer sales. I do not see the netbook as an example of conspicuous minimalism. Far from it - in my opinion, these cute little toys are the textbook example of conspicuous consumption.
Before I get started, would everyone out there whose ONLY computer is a netbook please raise their hands?
No, I didn't think so.
The fact is, very few people are buying netbooks thinking "this is all the computer I need". No matter what market you're in, you're likely to want more than a netbook can give you. These are intentionally crippled computers. They have no optical drive, few ports, screens that run from 7.9" to 10", Atom processors that shudder at the very sight of Windows Vista and current games, and chopped keyboards that make typing more than a page or two an exercise in masochism.
Almost everyone who is in the market for a primary computer will find that one or more of these things makes a netbook a bad choice. Bobby XBox isn't really going to buy a computer that can't play any game released after 2002, is he? Tina Tightbudget needs a DVD drive for the family to watch movies on, and a bigger screen would be nice. Grandma Josephine, who otherwise has truly minimal computing needs, can't see a damn thing on that eight-inch screen and might as well buy a $400 doorstop. And Yours Truly, who mostly wants a computer for writing on, would *like* to have an optical drive but really needs a full-size keyboard because carpal tunnel syndrome makes him cranky.
Computer manufacturers are well aware of netbooks' handicaps. They designed them that way. They're not stupid. They know that if any aspect of the netbook formula was altered to make it "all the computer you need", they would cannibalize the thin-and-light, budget and mainstream market categories. Toshiba and Dell are not about to do that to themselves.
Instead, they're marketing them as supplemental toys. They're selling them to style-conscious consumers who already have a gaming rig and a MacBook Pro for serious computing - people who have no real need for another computer, but have money that they're not quite sure how to spend.
What the manufacturers want the netbook to be is a brand new market segment: the disposable computer, a go-anywhere toy you can bring to the beach instead of risking your good laptop. A computer that, when it wears out in a year or two, won't even be worth repairing because a better one will only cost two hundred bucks. Another gadget to sling in your backpack along with the 3G iPhone, the DS and the video camera. Another Windows XP license to keep Microsoft's pockets lined. Another status symbol to separate the cool kids from the losers.
(And if you're keeping track of ecological costs, that's another device sucking power and another two tons of raw materials wasted to produce this year's hottest accessory.)
It's working frighteningly well, too. Nothing motivates humans like keeping up with the Joneses. It's only been a year since the introduction of the eeePC, and almost every major PC maker now sells a nearly identical netbook. Before the eeePC showed up, just about everybody thought a five-pound laptop was pretty damn portable. A year later, it's hopelessly unhip to bring that same 14" laptop to the coffee shop. Of course, you still need the fourteen-incher at home to do any kind of real work, but when you're meeting a MOTAS you need something with a little more sex appeal, right?
Not that the concept of the netbook is entirely without potential. These computers may indeed be enough for some users, particularly those whose primary needs are educational. The OLPC XO computer is a sort of netbook, albeit one with completely different design goals, such as the option to use human muscle as a power source for off-grid usage. The idea of an energy-efficient laptop portable enough to go anywhere and cheap enough to bridge the digital divide is a powerfully attractive one, and if netbooks had been designed as real computers to answer that need, they could have been the greatest technological revolution since refrigeration.
Unfortunately, every computer manufacturer in the world has decided that instead of that universal laptop, they would make shiny toys for people with too much disposable income.