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Why I Think Apple’s Touchscreen Netbook Is Real

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Some Asian news outlets are reporting rumors that suggest Apple (s aapl) 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 (s AMZN) 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 (s HPQ), 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.

45 Responses to “Why I Think Apple’s Touchscreen Netbook Is Real”

  1. I vote they make a netbook – touchscreen I don’t care about!

    I have a macbook pro at almost 3000$, and I don’t want to drag that around with me on all flights, short trips and into the sofa. I don’t need all my files, all the apps, large harddisk, dvd player. All I need is a minimal size, minimal weight netbook without DVD player and harddisk(it can have SSD80GB++). Perfect for documents, answering emails, forum, web browsing, watching movies, managing business on-the-go, and generally staying connected. So how do I do this? I have to get a PC. :| Would I get an apple 10″ netbook even if it cost 50% more than a PC netbook, at around 750$? Yes, without doubt …

    Im sure many share the same opinion, how else are they selling so many netbooks these days?

  2. TexasYellowDog

    I’m 63, retired, and started my computing career in 1966 on an IBM 1620. What is crippling your vision of the computing future is your continued use of some kind of desk as your primary computing environment. I have two computing systems I use on a daily basis. They are a 42″ LCD viewed at 10′ and a 3.5″ LCD viewed at about 10″. Both environments run the same Program, Apple Safari. Both take pointer and keyboard inputs. Both allow me to zoom parts of the display to enhance readability. What maters is not the screen size, but that the device fits your environment. Apple is blind to the weight and portability of the netbook. They are also blind to the utility of computers in the living room. Do they have the vision to get up from their desks?

  3. I would imagine that if Apple were to release a tablet style netbook, they would put in iSight camera+mic, 10″ touch screen, about 16GB storage, 1GB RAM and 1.6GHz Intel Atom. Bundle in a year of MobileMe (to get people using it; hopefully they will then renew it), and the ‘real’ OS X. Charge $699 and it will sell well.

  4. Also meant to include that Apple plans on putting full touch screen on their Mac Books, and Mack Book Pros, according to the press release I posted above….

  5. I would LOVE this type of device!

    I think the problem here is that people keep wanting to think of it as a computer. This is NOT going to be a Laptop, Desktop, OR Netbook… What Apple plans to release will be a device more like the Kindle with added features (and a color screen of course)… It’s primary purpose will be to surf the internet… it will also be good for using applications on the internet (cloud computing)… it will also be a good living room device (like was mentioned) to control devices, navigate through Apple TV with a swipe of the finger… etc… AND be able to subscribe to magazines, buy and read books… etc… I think it’s time that we stop thinking of the traditional computer that you “WORK” on and start imagining this as the device of the future that will eventually morph into those flexible OLED screens that we can just roll up like a newspaper… I also thinks it’s important to mention that this will not be replacing a Laptop or a Desktop either… this is in addition to!

  6. But let’s all be honest here for a minute, if you put practically any device in a kids hands and they will figure it out in no time, a netbook, a tablet, a laptop, a camera, even mid-range digital video camera, they will figure it out. Saying that kids are able to figure out how to use a tablet doesn’t mean it is the way of the future, a full size physical keyboard will always sit on my desk because it is the best for inputing text into any type of computing device. Touchscreen devices are great but they have their place, and their place is for casual web surfing, games, and other casual tasks, they are not that useful for any real work.

    The bottom line is, unless someone comes up with a radically new way of thinking about touch interfaces I plan on keeping my laptop.

    • @michael

      unfortunately you will not be the target market in a few years. good for apple (and others) but not so good for many who are hanging on to the past. the reason i say that because we have an old school notion of “computing” where we equate it to work.

  7. But the whole point of a touchscreen is its portability; desktops and even laptops get better resolution than devices like a tablet PC (especially by price). I can’t see this device having a function outside of the business setting…but then, devices like the iPhone are really most useful there, too.

  8. I think it would be a frame photos device. Imagine : with touchscreen and the os of the iphone, wifi, screen size 14″, possible to view photos from web albums, can browse the web and email too, can download photos from you camera. Perfect device, easy to use for all people like my parents, perfect gift, it ‘s not a computer..

  9. That’s a reasonable point however what you sacrifice with the Touch and devices of similar size is, importantly, screen size. Additionally, I don’t really think anyone has mastered a really good keyboard yet, RIM are trying with physical keys whilst Apple and the likes are still working with touch.

    FWIW, I think touch is obviously the way forward but it’s needs to be far more intuitive, right now I find my Storm’s keyboard very annoying at times.

  10. If it’s like other Apple products, it’ll be an overpriced, anemic netbook with a great UI.

    What more “traditional” netbooks need is instant on & off – waiting for a PC is boot is so annoying for a connected device.

    I don’t think keyboards are going away. A touchscreen is fine for people consuming information, but not if you’re creating a lot (at least not until we have some other method of input that can match the keyboard for speed and low impact. Maybe voice. I don’t think touchscreens will ever get there).

  11. Nicholas

    I was dismissive of the iPhone as a netbook like device, but increasingly I believe that it is incredibly well suited to the task. As I am interested in education, and developed educational materials for a decade, the profile is perfectly useful to young children as well as upper level. That alone is an incredible achievement. I hope Apple gets something like this to market, the education and eLearning markets will be the leaders in returning the company to the corporate sector.

  12. “Just as it redefined the MP3 player experience and reinvented the iPhone […]” Did you mean smartphone when you said iPhone? or is the term iPhone so generalized that the trademark has diluted enough to use it to mean any smartphone?

  13. Define “netbook.” Whatever it is, if “it” is real, it will be about as much of a netbook as the iPhone is a cellphone. One thing I’d say though is that 3G is key.

  14. What would serve Apple in this space is a touchscreen with no external keyboard or mouse needed. Having an option to use one would be good because this could replace a desktop, but it would have to have an SSD of some large capacity or an EEPROM which would contain the entire OS, be upgradable (by the user) and a battery life that would make this the toy of toys to have. As I write this from my windows pc I am in my mind sitting at Starbucks having a conversation with a client via ichat using my bluetooth to speak to them and screenshare with them from my touchscreen applenetbook (macBooklet) in blazing fast speed since it’s got builtin wireless and it comes with a special coating which allows the battery to charge via the sunlight.

    They’ll be smart if they get into this at some point, but it’s got to be something on the order of magnitude that the Macintosh was to the industry when it was released, but at a manageable pricepoint. Because everyone will want one, especially if it runs Windows either from a virtual state or from a reboot ala bootcamp.


    • andru

      If you want a large capacity, high speed, solar-charging, max osx and windows-running netbook, at a bargain price, I think you might have to make it yourself. And while you’re at it add a universal time controller and tea maker – I’ll definitely buy one, as long as it’s at a manageable price point.


  15. 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

    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. :-)



  16. 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).

  17. 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.

  18. Mark Z

    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.

    • Paul Harvey

      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!!

  19. 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.