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Summary:

It’s increasingly clear, at least to me, that Apple can’t afford to ignore the netbook phenomenon. Yes, I know Apple doesn’t do cheap computers and that there are markets the company chooses not to serve, but netbooks really can’t be considered just another class of laptop, […]

eMate 300

It’s increasingly clear, at least to me, that Apple can’t afford to ignore the netbook phenomenon. Yes, I know Apple doesn’t do cheap computers and that there are markets the company chooses not to serve, but netbooks really can’t be considered just another class of laptop, but rather a new category of consumer electronics.

Apple competes in the digital music player and smartphone categories, so why not netbooks, which are the brightest star in the computer sales firmament these days? Dell just announced its new Inspiron Mini 12, a new .92″ thick nettbook-cum-MacBook Air challenger with a 12.1-inch WXGA 1280 x 800 display, 1 GB RAM, webcam and Bluetooth for $600.

eMate 300

It’s not as if Apple hasn’t charted this territory before. We could argue that Apple pioneered the netbook concept back in 1997 with the Newton eMate 300, which combined PDA engineering and features in a laptop crossover form factor.

The eMate was packaged in a rugged, translucent aquamarine and black clamshell case with a 480×320 16-shade grayscale backlit LCD touchscreen display that could be used either Newton PDA style with a stylus, or laptop-style with a built-in conventional keyboard, and came bundled with a suite of built-in software applications including a word processor, drawing program, spreadsheet, graphing calculator, address book, and calendar functions. It could run hundreds of applications that had been developed for Newton 2.0.

The eMate also had TCP/IP capabilities for Internet and email access. Measuring 12.0″ x 11.4″ x 2.1″ and weighing in at four pounds, the eMate was heavier than today’s PC netbooks, but lighter that the contemporaneous subnotebook PowerBook Duos and PowerBook 2400s, or the 12″ PowerBooks and iBooks that followed. It was also much cheaper than any PowerBook at the time, selling for $800.

Unfortunately, eMate was handicapped by limitations of the Newton operating system, but it’s tantalizing to speculate what it would’ve been like running a stripped-down version of Mac OS X on a color display like the iPhone does. Indeed, iPhone technology could conceivably serve as the basis for a Mac netbook.

What are the prospects?

Late last week Softpedia’s Traian Teglet cited ongoing rumors suggesting Apple is working on a lightweight, small-sized portable system that is neither iPhone nor MacBook, and notes that Apple’s iPhone chip supplier ARM has indicated its processors will soon power several new netbook systems that could debut before the end of this year. Of course, OS X already supports ARM’s processor architecture. The New York Times’ John Markoff referenced evidence of a new Apple device with a display resolution between the iPhone’s 480×320 and the MacBook’s 1280×800.

Then there’s Apple’s April 2008 acquisition of chip-maker PA Semi, which will be focussed on ARM-based chippery for future iPhones and could also, presumably, assist with development of an Apple netbook.

At last week’s conference with financial analysts, Steve Jobs didn’t tip his hand, but didn’t slam the door on prospects for an Apple netbook either, saying that Apple is taking a “wait and see” approach, and affirming that Apple has “some pretty interesting ideas” about how to go about addressing the netbook category if it were to go that route, while coyly observing that “we don’t know how to make a $500 computer that’s not a piece of junk,” and suggesting that the iPhone already offers mobile Internet capability very satisfactorily for many Apple users.

For much of those who’d like to see a netbook from Apple, a larger display and a real keyboard practical for real typing, a trackpad, plus — and this is huge — full cut-and-paste capability, are non-negotiable requirements even in a lightweight web-access machine. If Apple fails to produce a machine with those attributes, it will continue to bleed sales to the PC netbook sector, in which the Inspiron Mini 12 is just one example of some pretty attractive and inexpensive hardware these days.

By Charles Moore
  1. Good thoughts. Maybe something like an unholy lovechild of both the eMate and a 12″ iBook or PowerBook would serve as the Apple netbook. People loved both form factors (portable, light, small footprint), and Apple is doing so well shrinking everything that a reasonably-powered netbook seems possible.

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  2. Newton, and eMate never earned a profit. When spun off income was 200m per Q, operating costs were 250m. Netbook sales have so far sold 800k units between every company, in every country.
    Is there going to be a market? Perhaps, Tablet PC is still too small of a market. Instead of saying why wont Apple copy PC companies, for example selling $400 laptops losing $ on every sale “hoping” to get you to upgrade, or ???

    Netbook seems like a solution looking for a problem. Cell phones features were 95% unused due to complexity. Same with MP3 players, and computers for that matter. ( Also carry a cell + iPod in summer was… a bit heavy)

    So the netbook market solves what problem? Serves the market of ( ) which current netbooks do not. I don’t really want anything between a smartphone & laptop. Who does? How much work can be done on a tiny screen?

    BTW Macbook sales are growing 5 X’s faster than the PC market. The top 10% in units accounts for 80% of profits. Apple has margins over 30%, no other PC maker is even close.

    What is the point of a netbook?

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  3. I remember those eMates fondly. In high school, somehow funding to buy a bunch of them was shuffled in to the Special Education classrooms, while the rest of us got to use 75MHz Pentium 1s in the Windows lab, or PowerMac 7100s in the Mac lab, each which was 5 years old. The eMates were the smallest laptop we had ever seen.

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  4. I’m still waiting for Apple to get the iPhone right. It’s a great platform, but right now it feels a lot like the first 128K Mac. But even it could copy and paste.

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  5. “What is the point of a netbook?”

    The Register’s Tony Smith in a report today has one answer – “ARPU”:

    “Apple should pull out the stops and release a 3G-enabled laptop for network operators panting to get their mitts on a MacBook with built in mobile broadband connectivity.

    “That’s what Strategy Analytics analyst Neil Mawston advised the Mac maker today. Why? Because ‘many operators in the US and Western Europe would jump at the chance to cross-sell a cellular MacBook to their installed base of iPhone users, in order to stimulate ARPU’ – average revenue per user.

    “‘Mobile data and Web-browsing revenues from 3.5G USB dongles are rising fast in Western Europe and North America. They are a high-growth market,’ Mawston told Register Hardware.”

    “‘Bigger-screen or smaller-screen laptops with integrated cellular radios are a logical next step for Apple – and others,’ he said. “Such form-factors are within Apple’s core competence and they could be quickly developed”

    For the full report, visit:
    http://www.reghardware.co.uk/2008/10/30/apple_hsdpa_macbook_for_carriers/

    Charles

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  6. Didn’t Steve already tell you people that Apple won’t or can’t build a PC for $400 that won’t be a piece of junk. If other companies want to pursue junk, then they should suit themselves. Apple already has a cheap computer and it’s called the iPhone.

    I’d want some device that’s between a smartphone and a notebook and I’m waiting for the Apple tablet with a 7″ diagnonal screen to use for browsing, watching movies and maybe reading a book or playing some games. That would suit me just fine.

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  7. I’ve played pretty seriously with iPhone, with Android, with QTExtended, with various levels of Palm. They might all be slick to look at and have lots of fun games but the underlying OS and dev tools are still nothing to compare to the simplicity and beauty of NewtonOS. So when you say that the eMate was hampered by the “limitations of the Newton operating system” what exactly do you mean? As a user I was able to take my MessagePad 2100 into lectures and meetings and hand-write notes on it in real-time. I could then synch my MessagePad to my Mac and everyone would have an outline of the meeting within minutes. No one has got close to that ability and these micro keyboards will never have the speed necessary… Did I mention that I still use it?

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  8. Charles Moore Friday, October 31, 2008

    Hi Roland;

    I was thinking in the context of browser and email support. The iPhone will run a version of Safari – I don’t think your Newton will.

    That said, I’ve always admired the Newton, and it was awesome in terms of its era. Glad to hear you’re still getting great service from yours.

    ChaRLES

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  9. You are spinning your wheels but you have no traction , viz:

    ‘Apple competes in the digital music player and smartphone categories, so why not netbooks, which are the brightest star in the computer sales firmament these days?’

    This is invented drivel.
    1 Netbooks are not a new category, they are bare-bones, limited use PCs.
    2 In case you hadn’t noticed, ‘the (2) brightest star(s) in the computer sales firmament these days are the iPhone/Touch and the Mac.
    Silly boy. Why don’t you write about Betamax futures instead?

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  10. Charles Moore Friday, October 31, 2008

    chamo:

    1. That’s pretty much the new category if you add Small footprint. They aren’t really all bare bones though. Three weeks ago Asustek launched an upmarket version of the Eee PC with its stylish and very attractive S101 model, available in three tasteful fashion colors – Brown, Champagne or Graphite – and highlighted with details like “premium Infusion finishes” and crystal-adorned hinges in a package weighing just 1 kg (2.4 lb.) and 1.8 cm thick – not quite as slim as the MacBook Air but in the same ballpark.

    2. Au contraire, netbooks are now dominating the notebook category on Amazon.com, with as of earlier this month (I don’t have the latest figures) the only non-netbooks on Amazon’s list of top 20 selling computers were MacBooks and Amazon’s top-selling notebooks were versions each of the Acer Aspire and Asus Eee netbook and of the top 10, four were from Asus, three from Acer, one from MSI and two from Apple (MacBooks), This fall the Macbook was been knocked completely out of the top 5 Notebook category at Amazon, with netbooks dominating all the top 5 for three weeks straight, and that checks with retailers reporting that netbook sales are “swamping core notebook sales.”

    In an INtel note this month, ThinkPanmure analyst Vijay Rakesh trimmed estimates on both Apple and Intel on concerns about a slowdown in the notebook market. In particular, he thinks the notebook segment is being eroded by netbooks from Acer, Asustek, MSI and Dell.

    Netbooks accounted for about 5% of all notebook sales in the U.S. last quarter. Two companies that focus on netbooks, Taiwanese-based ASUS and Acer Inc. both saw growth accelerate. In the United States during the third quarter, Acer grew at a rate only second to Apple. Apple was still the fastest growing among top U.S. PC vendors, with 29.4% unit growth, while Acer saw unit growth jump 11.2%., vs. the third quarter of 2007. On a worldwide basis, though, Acer was the fastest growing, with sales up 47.3% in the same quarter, the growth almost entirely in netbooks.

    Charles

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