The flip side of Moore’s Law

From this week’s Economist

Constant improvements mean that more features can be added to these products each year without increasing the price. A desire to do ever more elaborate things with computers—in particular, to supply and consume growing volumes of information over the internet—kept people and companies upgrading. Each time they bought a new machine, it cost around the same as the previous one, but did a lot more. But now things are changing, partly because the industry is maturing, and partly because of the recession. Suddenly there is much more interest in products that apply the flip side of Moore’s law: instead of providing ever-increasing performance at a particular price, they provide a particular level of performance at an ever-lower price.

The most visible manifestation of this trend is the rise of the netbook, or small, low-cost laptop. Netbooks are great for browsing the web on the sofa, or tapping out a report on the plane. They will not run the latest games, and by modern standards have limited storage capacity and processing power. They are, in short, comparable to laptops from two or three years ago. But they are cheap, costing as little as £150 in Britain and $250 in America, and they are flying off the shelves: sales of netbooks increased from 182,000 in 2007 to 11m in 2008, and will reach 21m this year, according to IDC, a market-research firm. For common tasks, such as checking e-mail and shopping online, they are good enough.