Apple Netbook: A Folding iPhone?

A rumor is circulating, based on Taiwanese newspapers that cover laptop and cell phone components and manufacturing, that Apple will ship some kind of touch-screen netbook this summer.

The professional speculators are rallying around two distinct visions for this netbook. The first is a standard netbook with screen and keyboard. The second is essentially a tablet, which has been dubbed the "iPod Touch HD."

I think both these visions are wrong, or both right, depending on how you look at it.

Actually, I believe the most likely outcome will be nothing resembling a netbook before Christmas, although Preston Gralla makes a compelling case for the necessity for Apple to ship something in this space. But if Apple does ship a netbook, and if the Taiwanese reports are true, the most likely netbook will be a dual-screen device. I'll tell you why in a minute. First, let's look at why alternatives to this vision are unlikely.

First, the most unlikely product would be a scaled down MacBook (the MacBook Nano, or whatever) running the PC version of Mac OS X and standard desktop Mac apps. This ain't gonna happen. First, it would cost $1,000, and simply enter an already saturated market dominated by systems costing well under half the price.

The second least likely device would be a standard clamshell (screen on top, keyboard on bottom) running the iPhone platform and App store apps. The reason is that the OS and the apps are all designed for touch, and touching a screen on a laptop is awkward to the point of absurdity. Yeah, I'm talking to you, Dell and HP.

The third least likely platform would be a straight tablet -- basically a giant iPhone or iPod Touch. It's simply not innovative enough. And tablet sales on the PC side have been lackluster at best. I'm guessing Apple wouldn't ship anything as hum-drum and doomed to failure as a standard tablet.

So now we get to what I believe is the most likely outcome: the form factor I've called the laptop of the future: A dual screen clamshell running the iPhone OS and Apps.

This form factor would be usable in four modes (see the picture of a One Laptop Per Child prototype below): 1) tablet mode, where it would function like a giant iPhone; 2) laptop mode, where it would work like a mini MacBook with an on-screen keyboard taking up the entire bottom screen; 3) book mode, where it would become the ultimate Kindle killer; and 4) two-person mode, where it would become the ultimate mobile game device.

This form factor is so appealing and usable, so innovative and bold that I believe Apple may not only ship it, but dominate netbooks like they did cell phones.

The biggest hesitation would be the use of an on-screen keyboard. Besides battery life, the biggest complaint most iPhone users have is the slow, error-prone nature of the iPhone keyboard. But I believe its problems have a lot to do with the tiny size of the on-screen keys on a device as small as an iPhone, and very little to do with the fact that it's on-screen.

So that's my prediction: Apple will either ship nothing in the netbook space this year, or they'll ship the ultimate netbook: a dual-screen touch-screen clamshell device that works like the iPhone and uses software from the App store.

This story, "Apple Netbook: A Folding iPhone?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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