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Summary:

There’s more evidence that Apple is missing the boat on a substantial market opportunity due to its stubborn stonewall of the small, inexpensive netbook phenomenon. Steve Jobs may have expressed his dismissal of the device category last fall, and acting Apple CEO Tim Cook took the […]

imacnetbookThere’s more evidence that Apple is missing the boat on a substantial market opportunity due to its stubborn stonewall of the small, inexpensive netbook phenomenon. Steve Jobs may have expressed his dismissal of the device category last fall, and acting Apple CEO Tim Cook took the same line by contending that the netbook experience suffers due to “cramped keyboards, terrible software, junky hardware, [and] very small screens,” but millions of consumers worldwide disagree — with their wallets.

There are elements of truth in Cook’s critique, but it’s nowhere near as cut-and-dried as he implies. Some netbooks are hopelessly mediocre, but the category also includes very nice machines with “chiclet”-type keyboards (inspired by the MacBook), respectably sized 11″ and 12″ displays, decent hardware quality, and better I/O connectivity than some Apple notebooks. Linux builds (especially Ubuntu) are getting better all the time, to say nothing of the forthcoming netbook version of Windows 7.

In a commentary last April, Computerworld’s Scot Finnie questioned whether any computer maker, even 900-pound gorilla Apple, can afford to ignore the netbook trend. Confirmation seems to be growing that it can’t.

Earlier this week, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Retrevo, a consumer electronics search engine/portal, released a new “Gadgetology” study indicating that 34 percent of students buying laptops are planning to purchase small, lightweight netbooks. Another 49 percent will buy full-sized PC notebooks, but the majority of student laptop shoppers will not consider buying a Mac.

With the rumored Apple iTablet looking more and more like it won’t materialize until the first quarter of 2010, at the earliest, Apple has already missed out on the 2009 back-to-school buying surge, and probably the holiday sales season, too, at least as far as the low-cost market is concerned. Of course, it continues to do very well in the premium, $1,000-and-up laptop category, having just recorded the best non-holiday quarter in its history, selling 2.6 million Macs — most of them laptops.

“While Apple has done well historically in the education market, 2009 marks the dawn of the netbook,” commented Retrevo CEO Vipin Jain. “Students told us they wanted longer battery life, smaller size, and a lighter laptop. Fifty-eight percent of them plan on spending less than $750. All but 18 percent have a budget under $1,000. Netbooks are affordable — some costing only $170. In contrast, Apple laptops start at $949. At a time when many people are experiencing economic hardship, having a new Apple laptop isn’t a necessity.”

Personally, I think the iTablet will have a shot at competing with the netbooks and cheap PC laptops only if it:

a) Includes support for using a real keyboard and mouse (e.g., via Bluetooth or USB) in addition to its built-in touchscreen.

b) Runs the full-featured version of OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard and not just the stripped-down iPhone OS, and by extension, serious productivity applications.

c) Sells for significantly less than $800. A price of $679 being speculatively floated this week sounds promising.

What do you think? Has Apple missed the boat on this year’s back-to-school laptop-buying surge?

  1. Why would I need a “netbook” when I have a MacBook Pro? I don’t get it.

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    1. That’s easy–oneupmanship! They have to have the latest “whatever” even is it’s a POS. I used to work with a bunch of prop heads and tech wannabes who would talk up a “soon to be released” product weeks in advance and then stand in line for hours before it goes on sale just to be the first to own one. Remember Country Joe and the Fish? “be the first one on your block…”

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    2. kyle Antonowich Wednesday, August 19, 2009

      agreed i have a macbook pro so i dont need a pos dell mini book

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    3. wow, talk about a bunch of fanboy losers and haters. I am a student, bike every day and bought the dell mini 9 SPECIFICALLY because it’s easily hackint0shable and weighs less than air (pun intended). I don’t need to break my back or my wallet and in case of a fall or theft, the mini 9 is easily replaceable (in fact it will probably survive the fall because it’s an SSD, so my data will be safe).

      you obviously fall in the spoiled brat category acting snobby toward a solid product. are you blind? look at the stats! most students DON’T want a mac book. get over urselves.

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    4. Not sure how someone can call it a “Netbook” when it has a 12 inch screen.

      The problem now is that people want a “Netbook” because they have heard how cheap they are, but they want a big screen. They are idiots! But, like you say, they are spending money.

      I keep looking at a Netbook to turn in to a Hackingtosh, but I cannot bring myself to spend $500 on a machine that offers so much less than my Black Macbook. This is partly because I am not 100% sure where I would use it and therefore I assume I just want it because.

      I cannot imagine that companies have very good profit margins on those things either, so the chances are that Apple makes more of one Macbook Pro than ASUS makes of 10 netbooks.

      I think the saying “Buy the best you can afford” holds true in this case as well.

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    5. Christopher Anderson Sunday, September 27, 2009

      My netbook weights 2.75 pounds and has a 11.6 inch screen. It’s actually portable. A MacBook Pro is just luggable.

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  2. I firmly believe you pay for what you get and that is extremely true with Apple verses the competition. I have had my MacBook Pro for a little over a year now and I can honestly say I’ll never own anything but a Mac from now on. You might can find cheaper solutions, but in the end the cheapest solution isn’t the solution at all.

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    1. I am with you Jared, can’t see myself buying a PC again, only Macs. They have that unique combination of an eye candy and great performance…

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  3. I think a LOT of people buying netbooks this year are going to be extremely disappointed with their purchase in the long run. I’ve tried several and all are lacking in more than one area. I was going to buy one, but ultimately chose to go with another Mac (I now have 3). I got the new 13″ MacBook Pro. It seems much lighter than the 4.5 pounds it actually is, has a spacious 13″ screen (unlike the 10-12″ ones netbooks have), and with 4GB of RAM, 250GB HD and a full SuperDrive; it’s powerful enough to replace a low-to-mid-range desktop computer.

    Though I purchased this particular MacBook specifically for light-weight portability for my writing and Internet duties, I often do graphics work in InDesign and Photoshop with no problem at all. Doing the same work on the few netbooks I was able to play with was excruciatingly slow and a miserable experience on such small screens.

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    1. I have a Dell Mini 12 with Ubuntu Linux, and love it for what it does. $500, 5 hour battery, nice OS, 3 pounds. It is not as refined as my 17″ Macbook, but it is much more compact and serves as a great system for lightweight computing and travel.

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    2. I fully agree. I have an Eee that I use when I’m in the hospital for surgery (I’ve had 5 in the past couple years) and it’s perfect for that. It’s really great for those occasions that a full laptop just isn’t that feasible. However, as a laptop, it’s also just as unfeasible. I would have failed college if I were forced to use the mini keyboards. I failed out because of beer instead, but that’s another matter.

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    3. I’ve got a 13″ Macbook 2.4ghz, and I’ve got a hackintoshed Dell Mini 9, and a 9″ Windows XP Acer Aspire One.

      I take public transit(train+bus) to work every day, and I always just use the Aspire One. I can type faster on it than the Macbook(!), and it’s the perfect size for pulling out and putting away quickly. The small screen really isn’t that bad. What’re you doing with your screen that you absolutely need more space? Having lots of room is nice, but it’s really not necessary when I’m on the move.

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  4. Scott Finnie’s comments reminds me of the early days when Microsoft thought the “browser” was the Edsel of the computing world. Seems it took them about 9 months to do a 180 and Internet Exploder was born. MAYBE Apple will surprise us all with a netbook hit like the ipod–not likely but we can dream. I remember decades ago when Sculley was seen holding a futuristic “book” but I can’t remember the name Apple gave to it. I’d love to be surprised again!

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  5. My brother bought a netbook for school, an MSI something or other. He uses it for taking notes, writing reports, social networking and some very light graphic work. He loves the computer for numerous reasons and it fits his needs. I think his computer needs are very typical of the average joe, student or not.

    Having a powerful computer capable of running the latest video game, graphic software or other intensive task is simply not something most people need. We can all sit around in denial and claim that people who purchase netbooks will be disappointed with their purchase but the kind of people who come to blogs like this to comment on such are not the kind of people who would use a netbook as their main computer. The majority’s computer needs rarely extend beyond the browser. The days of selling the masses $700+ computers are nearly over.

    That said, I’d go out of my mind using a netbook. But then again I, like most of you, am a poweruser. $2.5k and beyond!

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  6. I’m not entirely sure that Apple have missed any opportunities when it comes to students.

    As an apple student rep I know that a lot of students are switching to macs as they look for reliability and power, most don’t know what makes a computer “fast” but know that a mac is built to a high standard so what they’re getting is an investment that will have enough power to last through their studies and beyond.

    Programs have always gotten exponentially cpu hungry and if you aren’t buying mid to top of the line in the PC department your machine will not only be restricted in the programs it can run, but also obsolete in a year or so as opposed to 5+ otherwise. My sister still uses an iBook and my dad an old Powerbook, they can both still handle most tasks at speed.

    A netbook is just a patch on a longer term problem, in WiFi coverage the iPhone can do many of the things a student would use a netbook for (and more), furthermore Apple are releasing their tablet soon which should address any potential gap in the market anyway.

    A large part of the back to school market simply wait and fall into the christmas one, so i’m holding my breath and waiting for more news on this proposed tablet.

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  7. I do think that Apple is missing an opportunity. I have a Macbook and we also have an iMac. Our son is starting JHS and if there was a reasonably priced Netbook running OS we would buy it for him in a second. We are still contemplating my getting a new Macbook and giving him my older one, but we are definitely on the fence about it. We may end up buying one, but if we don’t, the price will be the reason.

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  8. The price of the MacBook air concept is dropping. Apple might release a 10 to 11 inch MacBook air with the same specs as the currently cheapest 13 inch MacBook air and a price point well below the $1000 barrier.

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  9. What this discussion of netbooks left out is that they are running an operating system (xp) that is functional but primitive by mac os standards – I still use xp every day, but its age shows both in aesthetics and functionality. But it does allow netbooks to use cheap processrs – I thought I saw some new models actually using pentium m chips.

    I don’t think I would want an apple netbook if it meant running os 9 on a power pc chip…..ok, that is not fair, but the point is that what makes mac a mac is the OS. It boots faster and does everything I need it to better than xp, but I believe it needs more RAM and dual core chips to pull that off – not the components of a netbook.

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  10. Eh… Screw those cheap bastards. When you buy cheap, you get cheap. Netbooks are fine for very basic tasks, but they’re crap for real productivity and Apple knows that. If all these people care about is price, I say that Apple doesn’t need them anyway. These same people won’t be very long term, and loyal customers if price is their only concern.

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