Netbooks fill an important niche in the consumer PC market, but the way they are being marketed is causing confusion with consumers, says a Forrester analyst.

JP Gownder said more than a third of US consumers are interested in netbooks as a second or third PC they can use on the go. A quarter of consumers would consider giving one of the ultra-light, low-powered and inexpensive (most cost between £200 and £350) portables to their children.

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"Netbooks are therefore more than just cheap alternatives that can hurt sales of traditional PCs - rather, they serve a distinct purpose," said Gownder. "In fact, netbooks represent a third form factor in the consumer PC space, in addition to laptops and desktops."

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Helping drive netbooks' success is the fact that half of all US consumers believe that mobile phone screens are too small for data activities aside from messaging, said the report.

"For typing long emails, surfing the web, or using web-based applications, the netbook offers a clear advantage over most mobile phones. For these consumers, netbooks represent a logical device that's in between a PC and a mobile phone."

Another trend in netbooks' favour is aesthetics.

"Netbooks, like mobile phones, are even stronger fashion accessories [than designer laptops] - they fit in any bag or purse and can be carried around nearly 24/7."

HP's high-fashion netbook, the Mini 1000 Vivienne Tam edition, has a hot pink peony exterior and could pass for an evening clutch bug. However, it also costs more than other netbooks at £399.

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Netbooks do face some hurdles. One is poor marketing: So far most vendors have given their netbooks names too similar to their laptop lines, such as the Dell Inspiron Mini and the HP Mini-Note. "This branding strategy is dangerous - it cultivates consumers' confusion about whether netbooks are, in fact, laptops or something else," said Gownder.

The marketing problem seems borne out in the report's statistic that almost a quarter of US consumers think of netbooks as replacements for a more expensive laptop. These consumers might not realise that screens and keyboards are much smaller and that netbooks' weak processors limit them to web-based pursuits such as email, Google Docs and Flickr.

The most successful netbooks will be those bundled with synchronisation services like Microsoft's Live Mesh, said Gownder. Vendors should also consider selling netbooks to kids bundled with full-size laptops for their parents, complete with management software that lets mum and dad monitor internet usage.

See also: Netbooks fail to offset declining PC market