45 Comments

Summary:

Some Asian news outlets are reporting rumors that suggest Apple is working on a touchscreen netbook-like device. Such a device has been rumored for a while, and just as it redefined the MP3 player experience and reinvented the iPhone, Apple is going to pursue the netbook opportunity. But it won’t be with anything like the cheap, anorexic laptops being sold as netbooks today.

Some Asian news outlets are reporting rumors that suggest Apple is working on a touchscreen device. This larger format iPod touch has been rumored for a while, and it’s said to be a “netbook” type device. The question is: How likely is it that Apple will release a touchscreen, no-keyboard netbook? My best guess is that Apple is indeed working on a device similar to that being talked about in the blogs today.

Just as it redefined the MP3 player experience (with iPod)  and reinvented the smartphone (with iPhone), Apple is going to pursue the netbook opportunity. But it won’t be with anything like the cheap, anorexic laptops being sold as netbooks today.

When Apple COO Time Cook was asked about netbooks during his conference call with analysts in February 2009, he said that the company was “watching the space,” but he dismissed the idea of offering a device that had “smaller screens, cramped keyboard.” In other words, if Apple does make a device that sits between an iPod touch/iPhone and a laptop, then it would mostly likely be a touchscreen device.

Some other clues that point toward the development of this device are found in the user interface on the recently released Safari 4.0 Beta. Charles Ying, who develops for WebKit, notes on his blog the similarities between Safari 4.0 and the iPhone Safari browser.

I’m guessing that multi-touch user interactions are more positionally accurate due to direct user manipulation. That might explain some of the slight inconveniences Apple is making to pursue a unified multi-touch but full computing interface. I don’t know if Apple’s Netbook will run full Mac OS X, but I’m pretty sure that Safari 4’s user interface will at least be consistent.

At the same time, Apple is pushing hard on its web applications. The iWork web site and a much improved Mobile Me would make good companions for an Apple touchscreen device, whatever it might eventually be called. These developments seem to point to a device that could be broadly called a “cloud client.” (Related: What makes a Cloud Computer.)

I think there are social and economic reasons why Apple will pursue this opportunity, as well.

First of all, people are looking for a cheap, connected Internet device that is “not a laptop.” I was recently watching an interview with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos on Charlie Rose, in which he talked about the Kindle being flexible enough to encourage new kinds of media consumption, including multimedia books and newspapers with immersive content and interactivity. I think he is spot on — and just from that perspective, Apple has to be thinking really hard about this looming opportunity.

Secondly, I think the emergence of the iPod touch/iPhone is changing how we perceive and interact with computers. My friend Antonio Rodriguez, who founded and sold his startup Tabblo to Hewlett Packard, thinks that a whole generation of kids is now growing up with keyboardless computing as a default way to interact with machines.

These keyboardless laptops are the future of computing, no question. For about $200 you can put something in a kid’s hands that can a) surf the Internet, b) consume media, and c) do just about anything that a general purpose computer can do. Forget about it— the old desktop/laptop paradigm of computing is about as toast as the minicomputers were when the PC showed up. Compared to the OLPC, the intuitive factor is high: within an hour he [Rodriguez's 6-year-old son] was using the web browser and with just a teeny bit of coaxing he was sending emails like a pro. This is the platform of the future and we might as well get used to it. Netbooks? Come on, give me a break!

I know Antonio well, and he is not known to gush. His measured enthusiasm is one of the reasons he and I get along well, but I still might have dismissed it as one man’s opinion. However, another good pal of mine, Andy Payne (investor in Lookery and FanSnap), feels the same way about touch devices. After watching his kid play around with an iPod touch he echoed Antonio’s sentiments.

If you read our past coverage, we are pretty bullish on connected devices and consider them to be be part of an uber-trend I described in a previous post (“iPod, Kindle, Facebook and a Nomad Called Me“). I think these devices facilitate our inner digital nomad. There is one company that understands cultural shifts better than most, and that is Apple.

  1. While I don’t doubt that Apple is working on such a device, I think the full utility of touchscreens won’t be fully realized until two technologies currently in-progress, tactile feedback and touch input from behind the screen, make it to consumers. Until then it’s hard to forego physical keyboards, a stylus, and/or other inputs when you’re interacting with a device on a frequent basis.

    Share
    1. I’d buy that. i am holding off on buying either a win laptop or a macbook pro. time for touch computing.

      Share
  2. Please god, do not let it be locked to AT&T’s crappy 3G network.

    Share
    1. I doubt that Apple will require us to puchase 3G via ATT….as this touch device will have ethernet as we use with today’s laptop. It is weak economic, stupid!!

      Share
  3. Spot on Om. The real question isn’t *if* or *when* but how open or closed an Apple ‘Netbook’ will be.
    http://www.last100.com/2009/03/09/will-apples-netbook-be-open-or-closed/

    Share
  4. AT&T’s 3G uplink speed is far superior to Verizon when using 3G USB air cards. High speed uplink is critical for video iChat.

    A touchscreen netbook sized Apple device could be very popular by running both iPhone and OS-X interfaces for complete flexibility.

    Share
  5. If they do release a “pureplay” netbook, where does that leave the Air? As a high-end netbook?

    I suppose the Air has laid the groundwork in terms of egornomics. I think it would be a mistake though to compete with Dell & Co on price and therefore I’m not sure if an Apple netbook would appeal unless we see a break-through in terms of touch or other UI features.

    Share
  6. Hey Om,
    Did you fire your proofreader? It’s Tim Cook not Time Cook. What prize do I win?

    Share
    1. @WiFIGuy (& @SD)

      Thanks for catching that. Sorry about that…. You win my appreciation and big gratitude.

      Share
  7. Add a touchscreen to the MacBook Air and drop the price to $999, and it’d be a home run.

    Share
  8. I agree on the use of the word “anemic” to describe most current netbook offerings. They ARE joking with the 3 cell batteries most include, right? Explain to me how these are a mobile computing devices with a pitiful 2.5 hour window. Lame, lame, lame. Unless at least 6 cell batteries become standard and they hit the sweet spot of @ $200, I would likely buy a more expensive Apple version (assuming the 6 or more cell battery requirement).

    Share
  9. Om,

    You said it brother. I’m looking forward to them doing it b/c when they do, everyone will fast follow and we’ll finally get that tweener device that we’re all desperate for.

    Share
  10. Hey Om,

    My thesis is that unless and until the iPhone/iPod touch UI gets materially better as a serious text input device, the logical applications for this device are around entertainment and communication hybrids (where text input is tail, not dog) – not as a netbook replacement, although plenty will get caught up in the semantics of terminology. I am focused on use cases and primary optimized workflows.

    To me, this makes it the perfect living room companion device, and also larger screen top opens up to more immersive entertainment apps (where device can overlay/compliment what’s on TV, be a Wii-like controller, be a communications dashboard, connect back to home office Mac, be the wedge to Apple TV viewing form factor, support Second Life/VR types of apps, etc.).

    If interested, I blogged on this one at:

    Apple, TV and the Smart Connected Living Room
    http://bit.ly/FBEk

    For what it’s worth, there is also a link at bottom of that post to analysis of Boxee/media center space.

    Check it out.

    p.s. watching my 3 and 6 year olds get addicted to pictures, YouTube, drawing apps, games and music with pretty much zero “how to” on my end speaks to the generational aspects that you talk about in the post. My six-year old is all about App Store, and “can I get a new game today,” but surprisingly, it’s the three year old that can grab the touch and disappear with it for an hour, at which point I find him ensconced, headphones attached. :-)

    Best,

    Mark

    Share

Comments have been disabled for this post