Nilay Patel remembers the netbook, the small (9-11") power-sipping (Intel Atom) and cheap (sub-$500) devices that suddenly exploded in the late 2000s, only to vanish into the fog of tablets, ultrabooks and chromebooks. Within a few years, he figures, there were some 40 models of the popular but decidedly low-end Asus EeePC. Then: poof!
The netbook explosion was all the more odd because every netbook had the same basic specs, as Microsoft charged more for a standard non-Starter Windows license if a computer had anything more than a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, 1GB of RAM, and a 160GB hard drive. So it was all colors and screen sizes, really. All to run a deeply-annoying version of Windows, on a computer that no one was even remotely claiming could replace a primary PC. By the end of it all, as the chips inevitably got more powerful, enough laptop vendors were telling Joanna that their new netbook-like computers weren't netbooks that she started calling them "notbooks."
And then the iPad came out in 2010, and netbooks were inexplicably such a part of the computing vocabulary that Steve Jobs introduced the iPad by explicitly saying that netbooks were bad. "The problem is netbooks aren't better at anything," is a real thing Steve Jobs said on stage, in order to clearly distinguish the then-new iPad from netbooks. It was important to him!
Netbooks attracted so much journalistic interest, I think, because they were new and hackable and widely-rebranded at a time when Apple had turned cellphones and music players into a one-horse race. I used to maintain a hackintoshing netbook cheat-sheet graphic that I still get occasional questions about! Netbooks existed before the Intel Atom era (in name, even) and never fully went away either (e.g. the HP Stream 11), but the old stuff was useless, expensive or weird—often made with a very specific consumer in mind who only existed as human shadow of the device's limitations. Netbooks, then, were an example of what happens when a miniminum viable product finally turns up in the middle of a well-funded marketing fantasy, like a match falling on a puddle of fuel.