The Apple rumor mill is once again running overtime on the topic of netbooks. If you believe the reports, Steve Jobs is himself leading the charge. My take: Whatever Apple does, it won't be a netbook in the usual sense, I also bet that Apple, if it does anything, will itself avoid using the n-word to describe it.
Excuse me if I am being too literal, but my definition of a netbook is a small notebook computer with a limited feature set that sells for less than $500 and is targeted primarily toward wireless connectivity.
Most definitions also require a 10-inch or smaller screen and a keyboard so small that most people wouldn't enjoy using it to write, say, a nearly 700-word blog post such as this one.
If that is how you define a netbook, I don’t think it's a market Apple cares to play in. Mostly because of money. Apple doesn't live on the kind of margins that netbooks offer.
Take away the price limitation and Apple can play.
So, if Apple were to release a netbook, what would it look like? My guess is a super thin, super lightweight notebook computer with an optional solid-state drive. Apple already has such a product, the MacBook Air, but at $1,799 it's priced way beyond any reasonable definition of netbook.
If Apple could release netbook-sized version of the Air for $1,000--twice the usual netbook price--I am sure the Mac apologists would be all agog and call it Steve's netbook. To me, it would be a $1,000 machine in the class of what used to be called subnotebook computers.
In short, I see netbooks as computers primarily designed to meet a certain price point and whose necessary compromises keep them from truly threatening full-sized notebook computers.
Can Apple break this mold? Perhaps. Will Apple break it? If so, it would be the first time Apple released a product that had to compete significantly on price. Apple prefers to compete on styling and innovation, with price less important as long as it remains within reason.
That many people will pay a so-called Apple tax means the company can introduce a $1,000 netbook that competes with everyone else's $500 models and get away with it. Sure, purists will cry "foul" but Apple loyalists will open their checkbooks.
My guess is that if Apple does something it will release a consumer entertainment product rather than a real computer. Maybe a Wi-Fi-only "super iPod" suitable for viewing movies with a friend or two. Perhaps it runs the iPhone OS and offers the same basic functionality, plus a larger onscreen touch keyboard and the ability to work with an add-on wireless keyboard.
If Apple were to do such a product, it would still need some magic ingredient, ideally one that makes small size less of a handicap to its use for computing applications. However, it is hard to imagine Apple selling anything that might compete with its current MacBook line for as little as $500, a good price for a new super iPod.
It is also hard to imagine that a device aimed at consumer entertainment would easily be used for serious work. An on-screen touch keyboard, however nicely implemented, would be hard to type on for long periods of time. Easier than an iPhone, perhaps, but still not pleasant to write a business report on.
Having said this, I again hope Apple will prove me wrong. Like everyone who loves Apple products, it excites me to think of all the things Apple could do in this space if it so chooses.
I fall back to earth, however, when I do the math and try to guess what Apple will do. I don’t think it will be a netbook, though a supersized iPod touch could prove very successful.
If Apple builds it, David Coursey will likely buy it. Write to him using the contact form at www.coursey.com/contact.