'Netbook' becomes a household word

Once a trademarked brand, the term slips into generic use

When I was getting products together for my forthcoming netbook roundup review -- look for it in the Nov. 9 issue of GCN, and here online at gcn.com -- there was more than a little misunderstanding between the vendors and me about the type of device I was looking for. Apparently, many of them had a problem with my use of the term “netbook,” if you can believe that.

The idea of netbooks has been around since the mid-1990’s, although nobody called them that back then. At that time, this class of laptop PCs was considered to have minimal functionality — a stigma that persists to this day, even though many of the new generation of netbooks have awesome performance and features. For the roundup, it was tough work trying to convince some of the manufacturers that they were actually selling netbooks instead of “mini-notebooks” or other such terms.

In the category of “not helpful,” Psion issued “cease and desist” letters to anyone they was using the term just when it started to gain a little popularity again in 2008. See, in 1999, Psion, a company based in England, trademarked the term “netBook,” which the company used to call its line of, well, netbooks. Psion insisted that the industry come up with another term, despite most people agreeing that usage of “netbook” had become generic. (Except, apparently, Microsoft Word, which has a spelling dictionary that doesn’t think it’s an actual word.)

Well, it didn’t take long for big-dog companies such as Intel to sue Psion in order to try to get the trademark canceled. And sure enough, after a couple months of closed-door sessions, Psion announced on June 2, 2009, that it had settled and was withdrawing its trademark registrations for the term, and waived all rights against anyone using the term. I’m picturing Psion making this announcement while sitting on top of the huge pile of money the company probably got.

So, rejoice, portable computing industry! Now we can call our netbooks by the term they deserve to be called. Be confident enough in your product to join everyone else in calling it a “netbook.” Because I don’t want to have to juggle several terms for the exact same thing, and quite frankly, “mini-computer” sounds a little lame.

About the Author

Greg Crowe is a former GCN staff writer who covered mobile technology.


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