eMate 300 Redivivus? The Case for an Apple Netbook Strengthens

19 Comments

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.

19 Comments

sammy

apple will never make a netbook cause everybody will start buying it instead of its overpriced macbooks

Krzysto

The iPhone is not cheap and there are a lot of things that you can’t do on the iPhone… yet. For one, I’d like to print from iPhone’s Safari but it just can’t do that… and the battery needs charging almost everyday. (My Sony Ericsson K810i can go without charging for 2 to 3 days) That’s why I’m still looking forward to Apple’s next big thing if there’s ever gonna be one…

chano

Charles, I’ll say this for you. you seem a good sort.
But you are still mistakes
Apple has the ultimate freedom for the future. Mac OSX in all its forms, evolve from a common source but a great deal of cross-pollination is going on. To me, what this means is that. with a common OS platform that is stable, feature rich and evolving rapidly Apple can stretch the design of any of its products every which way, if they want to. The iPhone is the perfect pocket computer and net device.
We can agree to disagree perhaps. But I will note your points and watch the future unfold.
Apple’s plans to distance itself from ordinary PCs (as discussed elsewhere) by raising its game in sheer performance and features will do for Macs, exactly what I am asserting will happen for the iPhone.
Let us see what happens.

Charles Moore

Thank you for your lengthy riposte, chano.

I cheerfully cop to being a laptop form factor partisan. To paraphrase Churchill on democracy, the laptop form factor is IMHO the worst computer form factor except for all the toehr computer form factors that have been tried from time to time.

Which is why I’m a (thus far vicarious) netbook fan. I can envision being able to get along quite happily using a Mac OS supporting netbook for the sort of service I apply this eight+ year old PowerBook Pismo I happen to be typing on right now. If someone comes up with something better, I’ll happily embrace it. A smartphone just wouldn’t cut it for me. Of course it depends on what you want and need to do with a device.

As for colors and bling, I’m a form follows function kinda guy, but I have nothing against attractive livery. That’s a subsidiary issue however.

THe substance of the matter is that the bling-laden Asus EEE PC S101 model I mentioned, which sells for $699 so it’s definitely at the higher-end of the netbook category which Apple would likely also inhabit if it goes netbook, has a very substantiual spec., supporting not only Wi-Fi 802.11n and Bluetooth V2.0 connectivity, but also including a VGA port (D-sub 15-pin for external monitor), 3 x USB 2.0 ports, an RJ-45 Ethernet port, analog Headphone and Mic-in jacks, a 0.3 MegaPixel camera, a 4-in-1 card reader (MMC, SD, Memory Stick and MS-PRO flash card slot) Built-in stereo speakers and a Digital Array Mic, and a slide-in replacable battery, SSD and HD storage options, 1 GB of RAM, and a 10.2″ LED-backlit 1024 x 600 display, which soundly trounces Apple’s more than twice as expensive MacBook Air in many categories. It’s a real computer that one could conceivably do light to moderate production work on quite happily, which you can’t on the iPhone.

However, we may not be as far apart as it appears. You say, “The next-gen of netbooks will likely be in the range of $99 to $199. What can you build for that kind of money and still generate even modest earnings? Apple is not interested in modest earnings.”

I agree. That end of the market wouldn’t make sense for Apple, although they may well soon be competing with $99 netbooks being sold with bundled wireless service packages.

The economy is also a huge factor in all this right now. The netbook is extraordinarily well-positioned to swim in these troubled waters, and the growing popularity of “cloud computing” isn’t hurting its prospects either.

You also say: “My guess is that Apple will wait and bring out a range of premium offerings starting at about $500 up to $800. Unlike the current offerings on the market, these will be worth owning and offer quality and longevity.”

As I noted above, that’s the range I would expect Apple to address with an OS X netbook, so perhaps we’re partly arguing over semantics.

VW Beetle? I owned a ’62 model for a short time back in the late ’60s. I wasn’t a big fan, having a somewhat masochistic prfeference for British iron.

Back on topic, I’m happy that Apple is doing so well with the iPhone, but we’ve been there before with the iPod and predictions of Apple morphing into a digital electronics and media firm with the significance of personal computers fading away. Then the computers came roaring back, and the iPod I think now only accounts for some 14% of Apple’s revenues. That’s not to say history will replicatie itself with the iPhone, but the G1 and Android will be coming on strong, as well as the Blackberry Bold, et al. We’ll see.

I anticipate that laptops will remain a key element in Apple’s product matrix for a good long time to come.

Charles

chano

Au contraire? I still disagree Charles. You seem stuck in a form factor bind. Many are.

In my experience, with any kind of popular device, be it a watch, a computer, a TV or an mp3 player etc etc., there may be tempting forays into new avenues and tributaries of product categories, but the main thread never goes backwards in spec terms. Never. Would you go back to a BW TV? Back to floppy discs? Back to 56k for the net? Back to a pocket calculator sized computer of the 1980s by the likes of Sharp? Because the trend for cheapness always leads either backwards by sacrificing features people have grown used to, or downwards to unacceptable levels of quality.

No one, except perhaps the easily impressed naive innocents would care about your your shiny gew gaws ‘available in three tasteful fashion colors – Brown, Champagne or Graphite – and highlighted with details like “premium Infusion finishes” and crystal-adorned hinges’. The battle of style over substance is easily won by those who value only the superficial things (read: Acer Asus, Dell).

Reading your response, I’m reminded of a hilarious blackbird character (called Jeremy, I think) from ‘The Secret of NIMH’ cartoon, who found all sparkly things irresistible … and he collected them all.

Apple has the perfect answer to netbooks in the iPhone/Touch platform. It is perhaps a serendipitous example of an amazing unintended consequence of a great great vision and so ahead of its time, a little at least. The form factor may not appeal to all because the perception is that they are too small to replace even a tiny notebook (say 6 to 9 inch screen devices), lack a physical keyboard etc but:
1. the iPhone and Touch changed the game for good;
2. they parry very well in this space, offering ultra-portability in exchange for size and weight and;
3. Apple could introduce them in a larger form-factor in the blink of an eye.

I think Jobs’ point is that we are approaching a new tipping point in the portable computing space; a phase during which tastes are evolving towards what will become the next enduring form factor.

Apple is not a fad-chaser. It is no longer reckless. It has become thoughtful and considered even while it innovates. I don’t think they do things because they are impressed by other offerings in the market. I think they look at the market for signs of lasting new trends (where the puck is now) and then project forward to where that trend can most usefully lead (not just where the puck is going to, but where it should be going and what it should be when it gets there to be irresistibly desirable).
It would be a folly for Apple to introduce a cut down MacBook just to enter this popular but troubled market segment. I mean look. The next-gen of netbooks will likely be in the range of $99 to $199. What can you build for that kind of money and still generate even modest earnings? Apple is not interested in modest earnings.

My guess is that Apple will wait and bring out a range of premium offerings starting at about $500 up to $800. Unlike the current offerings on the market, these will be worth owning and offer quality and longevity.

The Asus/Acer/Dell style of netbook, is a distraction. I cannot imagine that they will endure. If they do, what is next? Something like a net capable PDA in the form factor of a Sharp calculator for $50? They’re welcome to that market. One into which everyone and their uncle will pile in, to build look-alikes for $10.

There’s an old German ad against the popularity of the original Volkswagen Beetle that said something like ‘Gazillions of flies eat shit with gusto. Does that somehow make shit appealing to you?’

Why would you even suggest that Apple should follow the likes of Acer and Asus, which are companies with zero franchise in computing. All they really know how to build are motherboards. They are good at what they do, I agree, and they are dirt cheap compared to American assembly staff, but that is not a business franchise. Dell doesn’t innovate and its biz strategies and lack of innovation are leading to certain death or acquisition … which is death by another name …. subsumption.

That is not a path worth following. Least of all for a company of Apple’s current stature. Apple tried to be all things to all people and it nearly died doing that under Sculley and Amelio. That lesson is ingrained into its DNA now.

Apple may already have concluded that the laptop will decline in popularity and become a Pro/semi-Pro item because the truly mobile computer for 99% of the world has got to be ultra-portable it seems. So they brought out a pocketable computer that is also the defining smartphone and iPod of its time. And yet, au contraire, it seems that many lower income people find this so-called premium product irresistible, since they cannot afford separate phones, iPods, game consoles and computers. Now all Apple has to do is to wait for the other cheapskates to move downward in form factor to compete at handheld level. But, au contraire, there may be no competition here. Having conquered the high ground in this multi-capable, ultra-portable device sector, it seems that Apple is also appealing to the lower ground with no dilution of price or quality.

Losing ground in notebook sales. Au contraire mon vieux bavard. The iPhone is 39% of Apple by revenue after only 15 months.

If you need a reality check, you really should visit places like Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Hongkong and especially China (by far the largest market in the world). You will then understand why companies like Acer and Asus survive. YOu also name Dell as a player. Au contraire mon vieux pimplemousse. Remember Dell is in trouble already. There are hundreds of knock-offs of everything you could imagine from T shirts to DVDs to computers. The companies who make this landfill-fodder don’t invent anything. They simply copy anything they think they can sell for next to nothing. Anything. This week netbooks. Next week flimsy calculators. A week later, cigarette lighters. The week after, who knows – maybe rubber flip flop sandals with LEDs to dazzle you Charles. The key is to buy in the cheapest components and raw materials you can find and then put some lipstick on the resulting pig of a product. You seem to love that lipstick, non? They use components retrieved from remaindered ‘seconds’ bins that were already headed for the landfill, reprieved pro tem only to be re-purposed into fodder for later consignment to landfills, as netbooks, flip flops and lighters.
This is what you espouse? You wish to see Apple join the scavengers in the rubbish pile?
Wonderful Charles. So this is the Great American Dream? Right.
As I said before, the Betamax futures market eagerly awaits you. It needs your insightful journalistic skills. It is waiting for you Charles.

I am astonished by the proposals you make.

Charles Moore

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

chano

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?

Charles Moore

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

Roland

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?

Constable Odo

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.

Charles Moore

“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

Jalopy

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.

Adam

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.

Armas

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?

Newton Poetry

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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