Why I Think Apple’s Touchscreen Netbook Is Real

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.