The Next Netbook Wave: Platform Convergence in the Cloud?

The controversy over whether Apple should enter the netbook category seems to incite a fair bit of passion in some commentators. One school of thought contends that Apple already has the bases adequately covered with its conventional notebooks and the MacBook Air, plus the iPhone for those who want or need Internet-capable ultra-portability, while the contrary-minded argue that with netbooks the fastest-growing computer market category, Apple simply can’t afford to ignore it for much longer.

Would I buy an Apple netbook? Maybe, but not as my primary computer for many of the same reasons why I wouldn’t seriously consider buying a MacBook Air for that role. I use my laptops as production workhorses, so the compromises imposed by small machines, as much as I admire them, are just too great. Even in terms of price, a netbook-priced used or refurbished full-featured Mac laptop makes more sense for my purposes than a new netbook.

However, for a large number of computer users, netbooks hit a sweet spot. Of course so does the iPhone, but some of us find the tiny screen size, lack of a real keyboard and of peripheral connectivity and a full computer operating system rule it out for our requirements.

I’m bemused by Apple-centric critics who complain that PC netbooks are “bare-bones,” when all but the most rudimentary ones blow Apple’s MacBook Air into the weeds in terms of connectivity and utility with their multiple I/O ports, swappable batteries, and expansion headroom, while mostly weighing in as light or lighter and nearly as thin as the MacBook Air. Even screen sizes are now mostly 10 inches or larger, and with resolutions up to 1280×800.

With prices in the $200-$600 range, netbooks are also tailor-made to benefit from a worldwide economic downturn which I’m skeptical that Apple will be able to continue essentially ignoring. In that straitened environment, netbooks offer an almost ideal compromise between power/features and price and are poised, in my opinion, to become the notebook sector’s dominant sub-category and conceivably the best-selling computer variant overall, especially in conjunction with burgeoning popularity of so-called “cloud computing“.

Apple needs a horse in this race, especially since netbooks are expected to soon be advancing farther onto the iPhone’s turf. Last month the Wall Street Journal reported that HP is negotiating with wireless carriers to sell its netbooks for as little as $99 bundled with two-year mobile broadband contracts, and AT&T already has a deal with Lenovo and Ericsson to sell full-size ThinkPads with Ericsson built-in mobile broadband modules at a $150 discount to customers who pony up for a two-year contract. AT&T stores are also reportedly expected to soon be selling non-phone devices such as netbooks that can access mobile broadband.

The upshot of all this is that netbooks are poised to become direct competitors of the iPhone as well as chomping away at the entry-level notebook market. So how long can the iPhone hold its own?

There seems to be a developing trend toward convergence of computing, entertainment and communication activity on a single device, and while for some the iPhone seems to fill the bill, I’m guessing there’s an even larger demographic that would prefer to have real keyboards, word-processing and graphics-editing capability, a screen large enough to watch movies and T.V. shows without squinting, and facility to connect with hardware peripherals, all in a conveniently portable unit for $500 or less. It’s a market Apple may not be able to afford to choose not to serve indefinitely.