Imagining an Apple Netbook

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Eleven years ago I was working in IT, doing systems management for the ill-fated interactive branch of a major textbook publisher. That summer I got my first look at a product that had debuted only a few months before, and as it turned out, wouldn't be part of Apple's product line for much longer. It was called the eMate 300. With the steady rise of "netbook" laptops, I think it's high time for Apple to take another look at that product and recognize some of its great ideas and innovations.

The eMate 300 was doomed from the start. It was a product built on Apple's Newton operating system, a PDA before the PDA market had really formed. The eMate 300, along with the rest of the Newton product line, was discontinued--"Steved," as we said in those days--when Steve Jobs took the reins of the company back from then-CEO Gil Amelio in 1998.

But the eMate 300 was--and still is--a cool piece of tech. It featured a 480-by-320 pixel display, set in landscape orientation, inside a "clamshell"-style case, complete with stylus and keyboard. The eMate 300 was envisioned as a Newton for the classroom--a way to get computers into the hands of kids before Apple engineered the iBook. The device had no moving parts, and I remember Apple booth monkeys at Macworld Expo Boston, set up in a tent across the street from Boston's World Trade Center, dropping the eMate 300 onto concrete to show how tough it was.

The eMate 300 suffered the same fate as other Newton devices in early 1998. A lot of explanations have been put forth as to why--the Newton business wasn't making the money that Apple needed it to; the Newton itself reminded Steve Jobs too much of John Sculley, and so on. But the bottom line is that the eMate 300 really never had much of a chance for success.

Though I would, years later, get an eMate 300 on eBay. It sits in my office to this day.

So now we have the iPhone, and with each progressive firmware update, the device gets more robust. You can 10,000 third-party applications for it, and that number is increasing at an astounding pace. Apple has received plaudits from analysts, industry insiders and developers alike for creating an ecosystem that has let third-party iPhone developers flourish.

Meanwhile, a somewhat obscure segment of the laptop market has started to gain a life of its own. Asus, HP, Acer and other companies are putting forth inexpensive, miniaturized laptops based around Intel's Atom processor architecture. In fact, I wrote about my experience with the Asus Eee PC in this very space last week.

Equipped with small screens and smaller-than-average keyboards, these netbooks aren't general-purpose laptops, like a MacBook or MacBook Air, but they cost a fraction of the price. And they're certainly easier to use for writing lengthy e-mails, composing business presentations and doing other similar types of work than an iPhone or another smartphone, such as a keyboard-equipped Nokia model or a Blackberry.

During Apple's most recent quarterly phone call with financial analysts, Steve Jobs suggested the iPhone is Apple's answer to the netbook--a product that offers the full Internet experience, but is small enough to fit into a pocket. The problem with that, as I see it, is that while the iPhone renders Web pages beautifully, and is suitable for responding to e-mails or instant messages with terse replies, it's not a replacement for a laptop.

I can't imagine trying to write a product review on an iPhone, for example. I can't imagine trying to produce a spreadsheet or graphics for a business presentation using an iPhone. There are just a lot of things the iPhone is simply too small for, and that the touch-screen, accelerometer-equipped interface--no matter how innovative--is just not designed to do effectively.

That's where a netbook comes into play. That's why I'm hoping that Apple will recognize the opportunity it has here.

In a perfect world, what I'd love to see happen is for Apple to introduce an iPhone Pro, if you will--a product that's mid-way between an iPhone and a MacBook, both in terms of capability and in terms of price. And there's definitely a big gap there which I don't think would cannibalize either iPhone or MacBook sales.

Imagine if the iPhone were installed in a clamshell design, complete with a keyboard. You'd have the best of both worlds--a touch screen-equipped device running a broad variety of third party software, with the flexibility to input large amounts of text easily.

I'm Macworld'sGame Room columnist, so you might be wondering how a netbook might fit in there. (Indeed, this particular post began life as an editorial in my weekly games newsletter.) Netbooks are not known for their game prowess, though the iPhone is increasingly associated with games. I don't think this would change with another iPhone product focused on reaching out to consumers and professionals looking for a netbook-style product.

Admittedly, it presents some engineering and usability problems, if my concept of a clamshell-style iPhone-derived product were to come to pass. But I still think such a system could potentially offer users just as good a gaming experience--and could pave the way for other kinds of games to run on the platforms--games more suited for keyboard controls.

Believe me, I understand it when people who remember the eMate 300 look at it as a failure and don't want to see Apple repeat the same mistake again. And Apple can't be all things to all people. And I certainly acknowledge that my concept of a keyboard-equipped iPhone probably offends the sensibilities of some of you reading this.

But as evidenced by the growing market for netbooks, there are an increasing number of consumers for whom that form-factor is not only appropriate but preferable. Apple certainly has the technical understanding to build a device that can blow away the competition, and in doing so can help set the bar for what a netbook ought to be.

This story, "Imagining an Apple Netbook" was originally published by Macworld.

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