Lack of Netbook, Price Hurting Apple in This Year’s Back-to-School Market

imacnetbookThere’s more evidence that Apple (s aapl) is missing the boat on a substantial market opportunity due to its stubborn stonewall of the small, inexpensive netbook phenomenon. Steve Jobs may have expressed his dismissal of the device category last fall, and acting Apple CEO Tim Cook took the same line by contending that the netbook experience suffers due to “cramped keyboards, terrible software, junky hardware, [and] very small screens,” but millions of consumers worldwide disagree — with their wallets.

There are elements of truth in Cook’s critique, but it’s nowhere near as cut-and-dried as he implies. Some netbooks are hopelessly mediocre, but the category also includes very nice machines with “chiclet”-type keyboards (inspired by the MacBook), respectably sized 11″ and 12″ displays, decent hardware quality, and better I/O connectivity than some Apple notebooks. Linux builds (especially Ubuntu) are getting better all the time, to say nothing of the forthcoming netbook version of Windows 7.

In a commentary last April, Computerworld’s Scot Finnie questioned whether any computer maker, even 900-pound gorilla Apple, can afford to ignore the netbook trend. Confirmation seems to be growing that it can’t.

Earlier this week, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Retrevo, a consumer electronics search engine/portal, released a new “Gadgetology” study indicating that 34 percent of students buying laptops are planning to purchase small, lightweight netbooks. Another 49 percent will buy full-sized PC notebooks, but the majority of student laptop shoppers will not consider buying a Mac.

With the rumored Apple iTablet looking more and more like it won’t materialize until the first quarter of 2010, at the earliest, Apple has already missed out on the 2009 back-to-school buying surge, and probably the holiday sales season, too, at least as far as the low-cost market is concerned. Of course, it continues to do very well in the premium, $1,000-and-up laptop category, having just recorded the best non-holiday quarter in its history, selling 2.6 million Macs — most of them laptops.

“While Apple has done well historically in the education market, 2009 marks the dawn of the netbook,” commented Retrevo CEO Vipin Jain. “Students told us they wanted longer battery life, smaller size, and a lighter laptop. Fifty-eight percent of them plan on spending less than $750. All but 18 percent have a budget under $1,000. Netbooks are affordable — some costing only $170. In contrast, Apple laptops start at $949. At a time when many people are experiencing economic hardship, having a new Apple laptop isn’t a necessity.”

Personally, I think the iTablet will have a shot at competing with the netbooks and cheap PC laptops only if it:

a) Includes support for using a real keyboard and mouse (e.g., via Bluetooth or USB) in addition to its built-in touchscreen.

b) Runs the full-featured version of OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard and not just the stripped-down iPhone OS, and by extension, serious productivity applications.

c) Sells for significantly less than $800. A price of $679 being speculatively floated this week sounds promising.

What do you think? Has Apple missed the boat on this year’s back-to-school laptop-buying surge?