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Apple netbook rumors heat up- what would it be like?

white-macbookKevin was all over the rumors out of Asia yesterday that Apple (s aapl) is ready to produce a netbook this year.  The unconfirmed rumors have Apple getting a bunch of 10-inch touch-screens for inclusion on their netbook, even though they have stated emphatically they don’t do netbooks.

The rumors have picked up steam today with the Dow Jones Newswire picking up on the story. They reiterate that Wintek has confirmed a “netbook” is being readied with a touch-screen between 9.7 and 10 inches (pretty tight specs) for introduction in the last half of this year.  This has many folks all abuzz with the thought of a cheap, small Apple netbook coming to fruition.  Some even expect a slate device without a keyboard: a large iPod Touch if you will.

So what would a cheap Apple netbook be like?

Not cheap is a safe bet.  I say this not because Apple doesn’t do cheap when it comes to notebooks (they don’t) but because of the hardware realities.  If Apple is going to produce a notebook with a 10-inch touch-screen I can almost guarantee you it will have multi-touch.  This is Apple’s hallmark after all, and they are not going to go with a cheap resistive touch-screen to keep costs down.  An Apple netbook is almost certainly going to have a capacitive touch-screen capable of fine multi-touch control and these panels are not cheap.

It’s a safe bet that size constraints on a such a netbook would  limit the possibility of a chiclet style keyboard.  While some newer netbooks are starting to appear with chiclet keyboards, I believe that chiclet keyboards like those in current MacBooks require adequate space between keys to be functional and the chassis with a 10-inch screen is probably too narrow for that.  This means we’ll see a traditional type of keyboard with real keys that can be placed right next to each other.  No MacBook-like netbook in this regard.  Regular keyboards are probably cheaper to make than chiclets anyway given all those extra holes they require in the chassis.

I don’t see Apple making a slate without a keyboard because based on past actions Apple believes that a computer (not a phone) needs a keyboard to be useful.  Steve Jobs was rumored to have killed the Newton because “computers have keyboards“.  I have to agree with him on this; touch-screens don’t make for good typing devices, no matter how much attention to detail is given.  First of all, you have no way to set the slate up for typing, flat on a surface is not conducive to touch typing.  That’s a moot point anyway with on-screen keyboards making for lousy touch typing input devices.  No, the Apple netbook will have a keyboard I feel certain.

The only concession to keeping the cost down that Apple is likely to go with is a plastic casing.  No expensive aluminum unibody no matter how sexy those are.  I would expect a typical Apple white plastic case, kind of a littler MacBook.  Apple might also strip OS X down to keep the netbook from competing with their own MacBook line.  I can easily see them removing iLife and other software normally included with OS X.

The rest of the hardware that might be used is hard to guess.  I don’t think Apple will go with the Intel Atom processor as it is too anemic for their tastes.  Netbook owners put up with the Atom because their netbook cost just a few hundred dollars but the Apple netbook is likely to be over $700 so the Atom is out.  You expect a “real” processor for that kind of money.  A real hard drive is in order, too, as an SSD big enough to be sufficient would send that already high netbook cost even higher.  Who would pay $1,000 for a stripped down MacBook?  That’s what such a netbook would likely cost with an SSD.

Bear in mind that this is all just my opinion, I have no idea what Apple might do in the netbook space.  I do feel pretty confident that an Apple offering won’t really fit in this low-cost space.  It might be as small as other netbooks but the similarity will end there.  Apple has already made it clear they don’t do crappy netbooks and that won’t change.

21 Responses to “Apple netbook rumors heat up- what would it be like?”

  1. I am of the opinion that Apple might be getting flustered by Google’s entry into the smartphone OS market with Android and G1… and with Android being ported to netbooks, Apple might be pre-empting that by coming up with a netbook.

  2. I agree 100% Cobalt. That’s why I bought a cheap Vista laptop. I needed more than what a netbook could give and I definitely wanted a larger screen. It was on sale for $399 but retailed $499 at BestBuy. It weighs around 6 lbs. But it’s cheap enough that I would care much if the kids destroy it.
    Now, my buddy’s college age daughter owns a MacBook, but bought the Linux Target netbook to carry around at to class at college because of it’s size [and she was afraid to drop her MacBook]. It was $329. Another friend bought one with XP to carry on vacation. He’s a strong guy, but definitely wanted something very small and didn’t mind a limited capabilities.
    Netbook fill a need, but I think that the need is size, and that cost is a big factor to most.

  3. The MAB is more like an Apple netbook. Probably ost buy a netbook because of cost and price. Some buy Linux netbooks just to save $100. A pricey Apple netbook may just sell to the usual niche Apple fan boy, rather than switchers that can buy a Linux netbook for half the price. The idea [for buying a netbook] is small and portable and inexpensive, otherwise, most laptops are ideal and can also be cheap. Heck I bought a Vista ACER alptop because I did everything I needed it to do, is portable and cost $399. I like my Macs, but why pay over twice as much for features that I did not need to be portable? Many college student probably feel the same, as well as other consumers.

    • In general, I dislike discussions of nomenclature and definitions. But in this case, I think the real functional definition of the netbook is that it gets you on the internet (the “real internet” or “full internet”) but not much more than that. These days, the value of using a desktop-class browser in a portable device with a hardware keyboard is exactly value that netbooks bring to the existing market. It explains why someone (not necessarily you) would want a $400 10″ Linux netbook instead of a $400 15″ Windows notebook — the latter gets you something that does more than get you on the internet; the former just gets you on the internet. If you want something more portable than a 15″ notebook that has the capabilities as a notebook, you spend more to get a sub-notebook. But if you want something more portable than a 15″ notebook and all you want is to get on the internet (which implies basic multimedia playback and document editing capabilities), you get a netbook instead. If we were seeing big advances in power storage, we wouldn’t necessarily be seeing these compromises. But instead, we’re seeing advances in CPU power utilization, which leads to this situation.

      In that sense, I think the MBA is too powerful to be a “netbook.” Even a similarly designed Asus Eee PC running an Atom CPU will be on the high end of netbooks, probably (price not yet announced).

      I do think that an Apple netbook needs to have some serious value in order for people to want one, even Apple users. The main difference between the iPod Touch or iPhone and a netbook would be that you use the former while on-the-go, and you use the latter while sitting down. If it’s just a bigger iPod Touch, with no hardware keyboard option and no full desktop Safari with associated abilities, people who already have either an iPhone or a MacBook won’t benefit from owning one. If it just provides internet access in a 10″ notebook form factor and an anemic CPU for $800, it really wouldn’t compete at all well against a $400 Asus.

  4. The words cheap and Apple don’t belong in the same sentence. They are akin to matter and anti-matter, and great care should be taken to keep them apart.

    Apple already produces a thin, lightweight laptop with a 13-inch screen, the MacBook Air. They would only be undercutting themselves with a similar machine priced significantly below $1,000.

    In short, it ain’t gonna happen.

  5. Lorie Ghamy

    Not agree with the Arm Way if Apple want a substitute to a MacBook. An Atom dual core will be more x86 friendy for developpers working for OSX and the Snow Leopard (with a low consumption chipset).

    I agree with a movable keyboard like on these nice Mac Netbook concept, le MacTab :

    The same with others “futuristic concept laptop designs” :

    And remember a recent Asus protype at Cebit :

    Or One Laptop per child next generation :

    So a dual touchscreen, Atom dual-core, and a movable keyboard (optionnal), and fanless is a nice concept for Apple iTouch Book !

    And i hope some progress around Inkwell for Snow Leopard to provide Inl experience for writing and sketching.

  6. A tablet-only device is definitely do-able by Apple, and would represent the best extension of their multitouch tech development. But, a hardware keyboard is really too useful to ignore. I could see a tablet-only device that has a hardware keyboard accessory, if Apple is going to be totally adventuresome. If they want to go gradually, they’ll do a straight up notebook form factor. A convertible form factor would be a compromise position.

    I also second the idea of an ARM processor — not only for battery life, but to isolate the product from the rest of their computer products.

    I don’t see the long-term advantage of maintaining much continuity from a multitouch netbook/tablet to a notebook or desktop environment, just as it doesn’t make sense to add a capacitative touchscreen to the MacBook Pro. Add to that the advantages of the App Store as a software distribution platform, which works best when there are no other sources of software for the platform. In particular, if Apple sticks with a standard 10″ notebook form factor, which incidentally displaces the trackpad and adds a multitouch screen, then complete OS continuity (that is, running cross-compatible versions of OSX) is easiest and makes sense. But if Apple goes with a slate design, the UI should be sufficiently different from the UI of a MacBook or desktop that it’s just as well to ditch support for existing OSX applications and promote a new opportunity for the App Store. For a slate design, you would want applications specially designed for it.

    My last thought is that it would support tethering to the iPhone via iTunes — in part, because the rumors about $10 per month tethering through iTunes makes more sense this way. It would also sell more apps through the App Store (if that sort of thing happens) by providing cellular data access.

    It does make me wonder: if Apple sold a 10″ netbook/tablet to every existing iPhone owner and to no one else, would it be a success? Because IMO, it would be easier strategically for Apple to design and market an $800 10″ netbook to existing iPhone users than to entice the general consumer base, who are looking at $400 for a Linux-based netbook.

  7. Whoops forgot as well that I agree it will be have a carrier subsidized 3G modem. $ 599 for one configuration with a spinning hard drive and $ 799 for an SSD

  8. My guess is it will be an Atom ( Those things really are speedy if all you are doing is basic netbook type activities, who is going to want to video edit on this thing?)

    I believe it will be plastic, available in either black or white and have a keyboard. Although I also think it could be a convertible tablet.

    We will have OS X, likely without iLife (although that will be available as a lower cost upgradeable) We will have access to a new portion of the iTunes store for download able OS X applications.

  9. Well this could go into two ways I think… an internet “tablet” with a fast ARM processor, or a traditional netbook, maybe a tablet with an intel CPU, whatever.

    One thing to consider is that they might be striking a deal with intel (like they did with nvidia for the 9400 igp) to allow them to use a dual core atom or something similar, that will be exclusive to them.

  10. I think you guys are leaving out a critical part of the equation, which is Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. It would be very un-Apple-like for Apple to release a new device type that does not take advantage of their new OS, which is due in months. That strongly points to a 64-bit, multi-core processor, which would include Intel Atom but not ARM. If Apple sticks with their design precedent of NVIDIA chipset and built-in battery, I see no reason why they can’t squeeze sufficient battery life out of a notebook or tablet running Atom.

    And there’s no reason it can’t run iPhone apps too. iPhone apps are designed in Mac OS X after all. Should be simple enough to set it up so iPhone apps can run on the Dashboard or separate windows, possibly capable of being rotated and/or resized (native iPhone apps and Dashboard both use the canvas HTML element for vector graphics). And a previous rumor claimed Apple was working on a tablet that ran both Mac apps and iPhone apps, which fits well into the current rumors.

    • Aren’t Atom processors 32-bit? That would rule out using them as you suggest, Sumo. I still stick by my claim that a 10-inch slate based on touch is not as good as including a keyboard. There won’t be inking on such a slate and 10-inches is too big to one finger type on the screen.

    • “10-inches is too big to one finger type on the screen.”

      That statement makes no sense to me. Why couldn’t a virtual keyboard be smaller or resized for optimization? I just held the 10″ display of my MSI Wind but I’m not getting why a 10″ display is too big to one finger type (or hold with two hands and use two thumbs for input) For that matter, why does it have to be one finger? ;)

      The trap here is trying to “fit” Apple’s unknown intentions into our preconceptions of a device class. I say again: they will redefine it, i.e.: our preconceptions become moot to a point.

    • I’m talking about usability not the ability to do it. Comfortable usability is what Apple is all about and trying to hold a 10-inch slate at +1 pounds for any length of time while you type one-fingered on the screen for all text entry is not what Apple’s about.

      That’s my take on it anyway.

  11. How about a 10″ form factor iPod Touch? No keyboard, but support for Bluetooth keyboard profiles, although the apps will be targeted for the capacitive touch-screen. For those users geeky enough to want a Bluetooth keyboard, Apple will provide a picture frame like stand that will let the 10″ iPod stand in portrait or landscape mode.

    The wild card here is connectivity. Certainly WiFi, but what to do about 3G? Since it will be classified as an iPod and not an iPhone Apple would be free to court other carries. Wouldn’t it be great if they went carrier agnostic for this device and left it up to the consumer to decide which 3G service to use!

  12. I’m going to offer some counter-opinion to the above thoughts. Just yesterday, I wrote about how Apple doesn’t define markets initially: they re-define them after others have laid the groundwork. It’s a smart approach that serves them and the market well.

    Having said that, I suspect that Apple will innovate either by not including a hardware keyboard or by providing some alternative solution that I can’t yet envision. I don’t think they’ll go with an Intel Atom either, but I’m leaning in the other direction. James thinks they’ll use a more powerful CPU. I suggest the opposite: they’ll stick with ARM for battery life savings.

    They’ll redefine the netbook space this way by challenging our traditional definition of a netbook as a simple, small notebook. I think they’ll use a more powerful ARM (say 1.0GHz) of either their own design or TI / Qualcomm. The device won’t be a “computer” in the traditional sense of a notebook. Instead, it will be more of a web tablet device that will run either the same version of OS X as the iPhone or a version in between the iPhone and the Mac line. This could leverage the existing App Store. Just my thoughts… after re-reading what I wrote yesterday, I realized that Apple’s re-definition of a netbook is what this is all about.