If we’re to believe PC technopundits, 2009 is the year of the netbook, those small, inexpensive, lightweight notebooks, that run Windows XP or Linux, and sell for $300. Much has been written about Apple’s need to enter the netbook market. If that’s the definition of a netbook, it won’t happen. An Apple netbook will never see the light of day.
What Am I?
What is a netbook? Who makes them? What advantage does a netbook have over traditional notebooks, such as Apple’s MacBook Pro line? From Wikipedia:
Netbooks are a rapidly evolving category of small, light and inexpensive laptop computers suited for general computing and accessing web-based applications; they are often marketed as “companion devices,” that is, to augment an user’s other computer access. Walt Mossberg called them a “relatively new category of small, light, minimalist and cheap laptops.”
A netbook is smaller than a MacBook Air; lighter, less expensive, less powerful, less capable. They’re optimized for low weight, low cost, and usually have smaller than normal screens and keyboards, and seldom have a CD/DVD drive.
Who Buys Me?
Because of the low price, netbooks are growing in popularity, at least at purchase time. Netbooks are popular in three main categories.
The netbook becomes a shared PC for the living room for family members to check email, browse the web, chat, play some games, and be involved in other online social efforts.
Netbooks are underpowered relative to Mac notebooks, and seldom are used for more traditional uses, such as Microsoft Office (spreadsheet, documents, presentation), graphics or multimedia product.
Some executives and managers to who travel frequently prefer the lightweight netbook to a full-fledged notebook. Most of their usage is email, web browsing, and reading documents.
Portability, battery life, light weight, and low cost are attractive to people on the go.
Netbooks have begun to increase market share among high school and college students whose requirements include portability, light weight, and low cost.
The basic list of criteria for a netbook is the antithesis of Apple’s current methodology for product development and marketing. Netbooks are almost indistinguishable from one model to another.
CNET noted “the specs are so similar that the average shopper would likely be confused as to why one is better than the other,” noting“ the only conclusion is that there really is no distinction between the devices.”
Apple’s notebook line is clearly differentiated from PC notebooks in style, design, materials, performance, resale value, usability, and price. Apple’s Mac margins are two to three times the industry standard.
A mid 2009 newspaper article said that a typical netbook is 2.5lb (1.2 kg), US$300, and has a 10-inch screen, 1GB of memory, a 160GB drive, and a wireless transceiver for both home and a mobile network.
If netbooks are small, cheap, lightweight, plastic devices, with no profit margin, little model differentiation, and popular with the throwaway segment of the population, instead of those who cherish value and performance, why would Apple consider making a netbook?
No Apple “Netbook”
Clearly, Apple has no interest in producing a cheap, flimsy throwaway Mac. However, a gap in the product line exists between the iPod touch, at $299, and the lowest priced MacBook, the white polycarbonate model at $999.
Speculation abounds as to what, if any, product Apple would move into the netbook priced market segment. A smaller, cheaper, less powerful Mac? Any Mac model in that price range would cannibalize sales of Apple’s more profitable MacBook Pro models.
How about a touch screen, tablet Mac? This idea has been beaten to death in recent years, yet may have merit, particularly if Apple avoids the tablet pitfalls of the Windows PC tablets. From Wikipedia:
A tablet PC refers to a laptop or slate-shaped mobile computer, equipped with a touchscreen or graphics tablet/screen hybrid to operate the computer with a stylus or digital pen, or a fingertip, instead of a keyboard or mouse.
Other than size, that begins to sound like specifications for Apple’s hot selling iPod touch.
This form factor offers a more mobile way to interact with a computer. Tablet PCs are often used where normal notebooks are impractical or unwieldy, or do not provide the needed functionality.
There are substantial differences in functionality between an iPod touch or iPhone, and a tablet PC or a Mac notebook. Power, screen size, keyboard, operating system, and applications.
Slate computers, which resemble writing slates, are tablet PCs without a dedicated keyboard. For text input, users rely on handwriting recognition via active digitizer, touching the screen with a fingertip or stylus or by using an external keyboard can usually be attached via a wireless or USB connection.
So far, netbooks, tablet computers, and slate computers have not done well in the marketplace. With one exception. Netbooks are selling in ever greater numbers but produce less revenue and virtually no profits for manufacturers.
Tablet PCs and slate computers have had modest success in niche operations, but have never caught on with the general public, and sales are dismal. What’s the one exception? Apple’s OS X platform in the iPod touch and iPhone. Over 40-million have been sold in two years.
Without question, Apple will not build a Mac version of the netbook. Even a very small, nearly full-fledged Mac netbook would impact MacBook and MacBook Pro sales. Revenue and margins would be reduced.
Other than OS X, higher price, and and an improvement in style and construction, what could Apple put into a netbook to differentiate it from PC offerings, and compete in a market segment which is mostly price restricted? With traditional thinking, not much. A Mac netbook won’t happen.
Thinking different is what Apple does best. If a product gap exists between the iPod touch and iPhone, then an opportunity exists as well. If hybrids are all the rage in the automobile industry, Apple may well surprise us with a hybrid Mac.
Think aluminum, think small, think 10-inch, multi-touch screen, wireless, Bluetooth, USB, thin, flash memory, onscreen keyboard (ala iPod touch, iPhone), and capable of running both Mac OS X applications in Snow Leopard (optimized for a touch screen experience), and iPhone OS for games, applications, and utilities from the Apple iTunes App Store.
Apple faces a few problems with such a hybrid device. Price. Pocket. Performance. Potential.
The price must be competitive with higher end netbooks. The device won’t fit into a pocket, so competes with netbooks for portability. Performance may not approach that of the MacBook Pro line. The hybrid’s potential, while substantial, may also be a potential flop for Apple and the company’s high flying stock price.
The questions remain.
Will Apple enter the so-called netbook market segment? If so, with the risk of a game changing product, or merely a very inexpensive MacBook?