Netbooks are on the rise. The bare-bones laptops, which typically cost
under $500 and are designed for web surfing and email, are increasingly
the focus of major PC makers looking for growth.

And for good reason.

According to Gartner and DisplaySearch, 5.6mn
netbooks were sold in Q3 2008
. To put things in perspective, 4.7mn
iPhones were sold during that same period. 14mn netbooks were sold in
all of 2008 and already netbooks account for 10% of the total PC market in Europe.

Two of the leading netbook manufacturers, Acer and ASUS, expect to sell 12-13mn and 7mn units in 2009, respectively, leading Ari Allyn-Feuer of Ars Technica to speculate that 30mn might be purchased in 2009.

Obviously, netbooks are changing the market.

While many have remained skeptical about the real potential of the mobile internet and many web designers and online publishers have not felt the need to make their websites mobile-friendly, the numbers demonstrate that the netbook is for real. In fact, one might argue that when consumers can purchase a basic model for about the same price as a smartphone, the netbook is the mobile internet.
This raises two big issues for web designers to consider.

  • Screen resolution. Most netbooks have a 1024×600 resolution. The most widely-used screen resolution is 1024×768. While this means that web designers shouldn’t have to fret about the width of the pages they design, the increasing prevalence of widescreen monitors with higher resolutions is going to be problematic. Combined, 1280×800 and 1280×1024 have almost as much market share as 1024×600 and at some point it seems inevitable that 1024×768 will be passed by these higher resolutions.

    As such, designers will, sooner than later, have a familiar dilemma – how to create designs that maximize the space provided by increasingly popular large widescreen desktop monitors while not leaving a substantial audience of netbook users behind.

  • Processing power and memory. Most netbooks have modest processing power and a limited amount of memory (the most affordable netbooks come with 1GB of RAM). While this should be sufficient for most web browsing, the growing trend of pushing processing from the server to the client using AJAX and technologies like Google Gears could create problems since netbooks are not ideally suited to such burdens.

    Rich media applications, such as Flash, can also quickly strain machines with modest specs. An instructive experiment – open up several websites that use Flash video (i.e. YouTube) in separate tabs and watch the impact on memory usage.

    As netbooks grow in popularity, web designers will need to weigh how much resource consumption they’re causing on the client side and how much rich media, such as Flash, they really should make use of.

The growing popularity of netbooks indicates that by the time the market reaches some sort of saturation point, there will likely be tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of netbook users.

That’s the type of audience smart designers won’t ignore and there are different approaches available to serve the netbook audience. The use of multiple websites (one designed for desktops and laptops with higher resolutions and greater power and the other for netbooks), for instance, is obviously not ideal. The use of fixed widths and designs that still display core content elegantly when other content gets cut off are probably more viable options.