eMate 300 Redivivus? The Case for an Apple Netbook Strengthens

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.