Say "Netbook" and today it invokes an image of a cheap micro-laptop with no optical drive and WiFi. Great little invention really. Get them under 100 bucks a pop and the world of education will be changed.
But that is not what I am talking about today.
Once upon a time Netbook meant a collection of various game related material, often originally posted to places like the AD&D LISTSERV or rec.games.frp.dnd on the Usenet.
It is hard to imagine it in today's post OGL and Creative Commons world, but there was a time when putting together a collection of D&D rules and putting them out there for others was a renegade idea. TSR back in the day came down hard on any posting anything D&D related, despite the fact that D&D material had pretty much been on the internet since the earliest days. Eventually TSR backed down (a little) and opened up areas for people to share original creations, via FTP sites like MPGN.
As Usenet, Listserves and ftp sites gave way to the World Wide Web, TSR gave way to Wizards of the Coast. Say whatever you want about WotC, they handled the entire internet issue and netbooks much, much better than TSR ever did.
The mid to late 90s was the Golden Age of Netbooks. The web was growing and people wanted more material to fill their gaming needs. Sites like Blue Troll, Planet AD&D and Olik's Netbook Archive grew to meet the need of people wanting to get more material. These sites are still up (and PADND is still active) so you can download some of these forgotten treasures.
Sites like the Kargatane also grew out of a need for more support for a particular setting, in this case Ravenloft, and they began to produce netbooks that rivaled the quality of TSR/WotC. Other sites like the Vaults of Pandius for Mystara are not only still active, but still producing material all the time.
The OGL in 2000 changed all of that. Now you didn't need to post thinly veiled allusions to D&D rules, you could use the OGL and the d20 STL and post a "Compatible" product as long as you followed the rules. There were still some netbooks produced under the OGL, the FANCC produced a large number of netbooks back in 2000 - 2001. But all in all the Netbook fad shifted.
Now instead of a Netbook you can make a real book. With the OGL you had new rules that you could use and reuse as you needed. With places like Lulu and DriveThruRPG you could put your creation up for sale even.
The entire OSR community is the spiritual decedent of not only the Indie RPG movement, but the Netbook one too.
My Witch Netbooks
Of course I have to mention my Witch netbooks. The first one is something I had started back in the late 80s and expanded on it through out college. It was originally for AD&D 1st Edition, but I shifted it over to AD&D 2nd Ed back around 89-90. I remember printing my first copy of what I was calling my "Witch Book" back in '92 on a HP Desk Jet 500. I expanded it more, read more netbooks online and finally on Halloween 1999 I Was going to release it. I did. Almost. My son Liam was born 3 days before that! I did get it out onto the web, but I followed it up with a second version on Dec. 22.
You can get a copy of "The Complete Netbook of Witches and Warlocks" from Google Docs. Let me know if there is a problem with the link.
A year later we got D&D 3. I was given the play test files in Feb of 2000 and I picked up my copy of the new Players Handbook on Sept 11, 2000 (I have the receipt still). I Had begun on my changes to d20 over the summer and with the new game realized I needed to redo the class from the ground up. I joined the "D&D Community Council" later renamed to the "Fantasy Community Council" so I could get some input/advice on how to best re-do my witch.
I got a lot of help and in 2003 we published "Liber Mysterium: The Netbook of Witches and Warlocks". You can also get that from Google Docs.
The two books have some material in common, but they are different takes on the same basic archetype. For example in CNoWW witches are divine spell casters more similar to clerics and in Liber they are arcane ones. Warlocks, such as they are, are also very different from each other.
Netbooks as a movement may be dead, but their spirit remains strong.