Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Where is the Timex of Laptops?

Analysts at DRAMeXchange forecast last week that the marriage of netbooks and solid-state drives (SSDs) is teetering and likely to end in a messy divorce as early as next year. SSDs featured prominently in as many as 70% of netbook devices at the beginning of 2008. That percentage may fall to less than 10% by the end of 2009, as traditional hard drives make their way into more and more devices.

This should not come as a great surprise to anyone following the development of the low-cost device market. Several factors have contributed to the change in the type of memory, but none more than the shift in target markets. Netbook manufacturers still give lip service to selling a first computer to poor people in developing countries, but they are following their own distribution channels and market knowledge to sell second or travelling machines to people in developed countries. These consumers have different expectations for performance, compatibility and storage capacity than their emerging-market counterparts, and these expectations are more easily met with traditional hard drives.

The steep decline in SSD for netbooks suggests that consumers (in any market) are not particularly aware of or concerned with the advantages or disadvantages of the competing types of memory. In fact, SSDs have several advantages over traditional hard drives that should matter to emerging-market buyers. Lower-capacity SSDs consume less power, operate at a cooler temperature, and are more rugged. The lack of moving parts makes them more tolerant to extreme temperatures, high altitudes, impact shock, and dust. For the time being, they are slightly more expensive than comparable hard drives, but the price for SSDs has been falling by 50% annually as production capacity and supply of materials increase. Netbook makers who are shifting their focus to mature markets may be leaving the back door open to a competitor who develops an SSD-based laptop “that takes a licking and keeps on computing.” Ruggedization is a serious concern for many emerging-market buyers, particularly in the education segment, where fear of breakage and maintenance costs dissuades many from considering laptops for student or teacher use. Timex has been trading on their reputation for durability for decades. Would a robust, well-marketed netbook equivalent find the same success?

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