By Juliana Liu
BBC News, Taipei
Asus launched new netbooks at Computex 2009 in Taipei
When Asus debuted its Eee PC at Asia's biggest technology show two years ago, the Taiwan computer maker created an entirely new product category.
But now, there are so many copycats of the wildly successful laptop that Asus has no choice but to keep up with its own invention.
Jonney Shih, chairman of Taipei-based Asus, said he was not surprised by the speed with which competitors rolled out their own versions of the original netbook: small and lightweight laptops that cost just a few hundred dollars.
"We are quite used to that," the dapper executive told the BBC. "You know the soul of Asus is innovation. I think you can see that a lot of our new products are coming out now."
Asus recently launched the Eee PC Seashell, a super-slim model.
In the midst of a global economic downturn, netbooks have become crucial to the survival of global personal computer makers. They are one of the few areas in the industry still growing.
Asus plans to use its status as the netbook's inventor to push for third-place among global laptop makers by 2011. To do that, it must sell more laptops than better-known names Dell and Lenovo, Shih said.
Asus is currently number five in the world, far behind home-grown rival Acer, ranked number one globally among laptop makers.
Acer chairman JT Wang says consumers' "fear" is disappearing
In fact, with stronger distribution worldwide from a series of acquisitions, Acer sells more netbooks than even Asus.
Acer chairman JT Wang strenuously denied any suggestion Acer was copying someone else's invention.
"We are not copying," he said in an interview at Acer's headquarters in suburban Taipei. "Innovation is improving on a competitor's product. That is still innovation for consumers' value."
Mr Wang sounded more bullish than the more self-effacing Mr Shih, who expressed caution about 2009 sales.
"The fear of the consumer is disappearing," Mr Wang said, adding the market was in the process of recovering. "People will find they still need computers to go on with their daily lives."
Mr Wang believes it's just a matter of time before Acer dethrones Dell, currently the second-biggest maker of PCs globally.
"Compared to other competitors, the current number two, their growth momentum is small. So it's just a matter of time. Sooner or later, we will become number two," he said.
Mr Wang said its laptop segment, which includes netbooks, would grow between 25% and 35% in 2009, compared with the previous year. That compares with growth of 10% for notebooks in the wider industry.
By any measure, netbooks have been a hit with consumers. Research firm Gartner forecast sales of 5.3 million last year, compared with actual sales of 14 million computers.
But because netbooks are cheaper than traditional laptops, manufacturers make less money from them.
Soon, they'll be competing with a new category of inexpensive, slim laptops with long battery lives, further blurring the line between netbooks and their notebook cousins.