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Rise of the Netbook: The Business Case for Bottom-up Innovation

Clive Thompson’s recent article for Wired entitled “The Netbook Effect:  How Cheap LIttle Laptops Hit the Big TIme” details the adoption of the Netbook, machines powered by flash drives intended for running bare-bones applications.  These low-powered lightweights took the tech industry off guard, and they point to a valuable lesson for companies in every every sector.

Shortly after reading Thompson’s article, I was rushing to a connecting flight in O’Hare airport.  I was sprinting through the concourse, cut an angle too sharply, clipped my right foot with my own suitcase, and slid gracefully across what seemed like several of the H gates.  I retrieved my laptop and what was left of my pride and wondered if I would be replacing my hard drive for the second time in a matter of weeks.  The practicality of the Netbook hit me square in the face.

To the average tech geek, the Netbook computer is probably a bit perplexing.  Why would anybody want a slow, underpowered laptop originally designed for children in third world countries?  But the durability of a flash drive, combined with the computer industry’s harsh reality that most of us actually need very little speed or memory to conduct most tasks, have made Netbooks a surprise hit.

The Netbook’s origins can be traced back to Mary Lou Jepsen and the One Laptop Per Child initiative formed by Nicholas Negroponte.  Jepsen created a power-sipping, ultra-affordable laptop that governments and non-profit organizations could purchase for $100 a piece.  Quanta, the largest laptop manufacturer in the world, built the machines.

Almost immediately Quanta’s competitor Asustek released its own commercial version and sold out its 350,000-unit in a mater of months.  Instead of low-budget shoppers gobbling up the machines as the company anticipated, U.S. and European businessmen looking for durable, lightweight and energy-efficient machines ideal for travel turned to the laptops in droves.

Netbooks are an anomaly in the tech industry, which has been stuck in the more power is better mindset for decades.  But quite simply, most of us don’t use laptops that way.  And with the advent of cloud ware, the need for powerful machines to house and run large programs is – pardon the pun – virtually unnecessary.

What’s fascinating about the Netbook story is the disruptive innovation came from a social entrepreneurs trying put laptops in the hands of impoverished children.  And instead, more of them may end up in the hands of newly impoverished businessmen.  Netbooks satisfied an unmet need that in hindsight seems so blatantly obvious.  Of course, all great innovations are that way when you think about it.

The Netbook also turns the the “early adopter” innovation model on its ear.  Rather than the innovation trickling down, it percolated to the surface through unexpected channels.  In many ways, the story of the Netbook is a metaphor for fundamental political and societal shifts we’ve been witnessing in recent years.

Or if if nothing else, its a reminder for big marketers that millions of little voices everywhere are whispering the answers to the next big thing.  Harnessing the power of the crowd to inspire innovations in brand development, marketing tactics, product design and business processes is the most efficient and often overlooked form of R&D.  It’s time the start thinking about how you’re going to listen.


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