MacBook Air is the Apple Netbook, End of Story


Apple Announces Netbook! That’s the headline you wanted to see, right? That’s the headline that industry analysts and so-called experts believe Apple (s aapl) must have in order to remain relevant in today’s economic climate. That’s also the headline you’re not likely to come across unless it happens to be April 1.

“It’s not a space we’re interested in,” according to Steve Jobs, and a few others at Apple. At least one site run by a reputable Mac journalist claims to have first-hand knowledge that a netbook does indeed exist deep inside Apple’s headquarters, but goes on to back up what we’ve already heard: It’s a prototype, and it’s just not going to ship.

The truth is, Apple already has a netbook on the market, which they’ve been selling for quite a while now. It’s called the MacBook Air. It’s a powerful, good-looking notebook with a full-sized keyboard, spacious 120GB hard drive, and a 13.3-inch, backlit LED screen. It’s capable of running a full version of Mac OS X Leopard, iLife, iWork, and Microsoft Office at full speeds, as well as light-duty graphics work in Adobe Photoshop.

Compare that with most sub-$600 netbooks currently on the market, which run some obscure distribution of Linux, or cripple-ware known as Windows XP Home, and you start to see why netbooks aren’t all that appealing for many people. Not to mention, the standard LCD screens fall in the 10-inch range, the touchpad is practically guaranteed to wear out from excessive scrolling, the keyboards are 80 percent of “normal” size for people with Barbie doll-sized hands, and hard drives are smaller than your standard iPod.

And let’s talk about power. The MacBook Air features a full Core 2 Duo processor, while most netbooks are running an Intel Atom or Celeron processor that barely outperforms my digital watch in modern-day tasks!

Do you really want a netbook?

When I ask around to friends and colleagues about why they bought a netbook, the answer was always the same: “It was small and cheap.” But when I ask them what they thought of it outside those two factors, I didn’t get much in the way of positive comments. Tiny screen, hard to type on, cheap-feeling hardware, and junkware were a few of the descriptions I heard. I thought perhaps this was due to the fact that most of these people weren’t terribly computer-savvy folks, but apparently it’s more widespread than that.

According to this report from The NPD Group, a leading market research firm, only 58 percent of consumers who bought a netbook said they were satisfied, while 65 percent said they expected the same performance as a regular laptop. Many were so unsatisfied that they returned them. How many? Intel’s Sean Maloney was quoted in this article as saying, “They [netbooks] had very high return rates, and a couple of these guys [retailers] had return rates in the 30 percent range, which is a disaster.” Three out of every 10 get returned? Yikes!

In fact, after a slight dip in sales at (s amzn), when interest in netbooks was at a fever pitch, Apple is back at the top of the sales chart with the new 13-inch MacBook Pro, which has been the top-selling laptop since the moment it was introduced.

Mac Users Want More

The market is apparently showing what Apple, and Steve Jobs, already knew. People want small and cheap, but they don’t want to give up power. As Mac users, we want more from our hardware, and we’re willing to pay a bit more for it. That demand prohibits Apple from selling a powerful, small, and cheap laptop.

Sure, it would be great to have a $500 MacBook. But do you really want to spend that much for a Mac that has limitations that might include a smaller keyboard, a smaller screen, a stripped-down OS, the inability to edit or even watch videos with smooth playback, or a hard drive only large enough to keep a small sampling of your iPhoto and iTunes collection on in order to save room for other documents. I sure don’t, and I suspect that I’m not alone.

Apple's MacBook Air
Apple's MacBook Air

The MacBook Air, as I stated earlier, is quite a capable little machine. The lack of numerous ports and a media drive initially struck me as absolute craziness at the highest levels at Apple. But when I look at how I use my current 15-inch MacBook Pro, I was surprised to notice how little I actually used the media drive; the Firewire and USB ports; the card slot and the ethernet port. I do most of my heavy-duty graphics work on a Mac Pro at the office, so the extent of my laptop use is light-duty graphics for the web, office and web apps, with the occasional iMovie or iPhoto work.

I suspect my laptop use is typical of most laptop users, except I paid a premium for some extra processor power that I don’t use, a slightly faster hard drive and slightly larger screen that aren’t worth the extra weight or battery use over a MacBook Air.

In fact, when I look at my usage, I really need a netbook. My next laptop will be something cheaper, smaller, lighter and just a little less powerful, but not crippled. A netbook. Most likely it will be named MacBook Air.

Note: I highly doubt Apple will ever release what most consider a netbook. But I’m fully prepared to eat my words, if I have to. After all, I didn’t expect an OS X upgrade to cost only $29, either. With Apple, you just never know what the next headline will be.