The Case For a Mac Netbook

Does Apple wanna compete with the eee PC? Beats me. But here's one scenario.

By  |  Wednesday, October 22, 2008 at 12:14 pm

“There are some customers which we choose not to serve. We don’t know how to make a $500 computer that’s not a piece of junk, and our DNA will not let us ship that.”

–Steve Jobs in yesterday’s Apple earnings call, responding to a question about whether Apple will release lower-cost Macs

Let’s begin with a few disclaimers:

–I have no idea what products Apple is or isn’t working on;

–Attempting to reverse-engineer Steve Jobs’ thought processes is a hopeless task that usually leaves you guessing he’ll do the exact opposite of what he ends up doing;

–If you assume that Apple will jump on a bandwagon or respond to pricing pressures, you assume incorrectly–it’s quite possible that the company will never make anything remotely like a netbook;

–Making predictions about future Apple products most often ends up making you look dim and Apple look smart.

With that out of the way, the question that folks have been asking lately about whether Apple will or should release a netbook-like Mac is fascinating. Regardless of whether the company ever does unveil a small, cheap, simple Mac notebook, it’s fun to think about the prospect of one. And I’ve come to the conclusion that such a machine could be in the works, in a manner that’s consistent with the Apple way and the company’s product line as it stands today. I’m not calling this a prediction. But it is a scenario.

First, let’s consider the current Apple portable lineup–the one that’s been current for just over a week. With last week’s announcements, Apple released a new MacBook that, at $1299, is $200 more than the starting price for the MacBook it supercedes. But it also kept the old-style white MacBook on the market at a new low price: $999.

The new MacBook is, quite clearly, a $1299 product: It’s got a fancy aluminum case, an LED screen, more advanced graphics, and other features that suggest that Apple couldn’t slash the price to $999 any time soon even if Steve Jobs went through some sort of bizarre epiphany and became a price-cutting madman. So the $999 MacBook makes sense: It gives Apple a more affordable laptop that, while not an $800 MacBook, is much closer to being one than a $1299 MacBook is.

But it’s also an aging product: basically the same MacBook that Apple introduced back in the spring of 2006. It won’t live forever in its current form: Either Apple will replace it with a new model at some point, or it’ll discontinue it.

The prospect of Apple just killing the $999 MacBook and starting the MacBook lineup at $1299 (or, say, $1199 at some point) isn’t completely laughable. Apple has been known to bump up the starting price for a product before: The Mac Mini was originally a $499 Mac before it became a $599 Mac, and the $1099 MacBook replaced a $999 iBook. Every technology company would love to be able to do this; Apple is the only one that comes to mind that gets away with it from time to time.

But it seems more likely that Apple will release a new MacBook eventually that sells for $999. Note that figure: It’s twice the $500 pricetag that Steve Jobs said Apple can’t figure out how to reach. But it’s not completely out of whack with the price of higher-end netbooks: Here’s a well-equipped version of HP’s Mini-Note that sells for $819.

Historically, Apple has done very well with computers that sell for a bit more than a well-equipped Windows machine. So the notion of an Apple answer to the netbook going for $999 is plausible. (Or, if you prefer, for $899–which, last time I checked, is also a lot more than $500.)

But it seems unlikely that Apple would ever release something that’s basically an eee PC that runs OS X. Love ’em or hate ’em, Apple products rarely have even a whiff of me-toosim about them; when it responds to industry trends, it usually does so with something that does so in a sideways fashion. Like the Mac Mini, which has very little in common with the low-cost Windows PCs it was originally designed to compete with. Or, for that matter, the iPhone. (Steve Jobs brings up the BlackBerry often enough when discussing the iPhone that it’s clear he thinks of it as a noble competitor, but the iPhone as originally released was sort of an anti-BlackBerry–no keyboard, little in the way of business applications, etc., etc.)

So what if Apple’s answer to the netbook was also a next-generation $999 MacBook that wasn’t actually all that netbook-like? I outlined such a machine in some non-predictions before last week’s Apple event, and it still makes sense to me. It might have:

–A 12″ or 13″ screen and a nice roomy keyboard (who doesn’t like more screen real estate and comfier typing?);

–A Core 2 Duo CPU (who doesn’t like more processing oomph than an Intel Atom provides?);

–A decent amount of RAM and hard disk space;

–Slick trimmings like Bluetooth and a MagSafe power adapter;

–A DVD burner, but maybe not–it’s clear that Apple is looking ahead to the day when high-definition downloads are the way of the entertainment world;

–A meaningfully thinner, lighter design than the current MacBook–maybe achieved in part by dumping the DVD drive, using a smaller form-factor hard drive, etc.–but one that doesn’t rival the smallest netbooks;

–Apple-quality industrial design;

–OS X;

–A surprising new feature or two that no cheap Windows notebook has.

Such a machine would appeal to some of the folks who currently pine for a Mac netbook, but it would also make perfect sense as the low end of the whole MacBook line–there would be nothing eccentric or niche-y about it. We know that Apple could make it and make money with it without making it a piece of junk. And Steve Jobs could enthusiastically unveil it at a Stevenote without coming off as chasing after a fad.

When would Apple release such a machine? You got me. But rumor has it that the company will release a new 17-inch MacBook early next year. The next-generation $999 MacBook and next-generation 17-incher would make for good fodder for the Jobs keynote at January’s Macworld Expo.

Wild card alternative scenario: Apple might go a totally different route and release a netbook that runs the iPhone’s version of OS X. It could happen–during yesterday’s earnings call, Jobs more or less said that the iPhone is Apple’s low-cost computing device–but Apple would have to do more work to the iPhone OS to make it make sense in a new form factor, and such a device would ship with no third-party applications (assuming that current iPhone apps would need to be rejiggered to work with a gadget that had a larger screen and, presumably, a keyboard).

It wouldn’t be startling to see an iPhone OS X-based machine that was a bit more like a traditional computer someday. Actually, it wouldn’t be startling if all or most Apple productd eventually run iPhone OS X. But that’s going to take time. A $999 MacBook that takes on netbooks without being a netbook would make sense just as soon as Apple decided to release it…


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12 Comments For This Post

  1. Jake Says:

    This is an interesting idea: a docking station for the iPhone that turns it into a Netbook:

    Note that as ITWire points out, the mockup shows a desktop OS X screen, not an iPhone OS screen. But since it’s just a Photoshop trick anyway, who cares?

  2. Relyt Says:

    Interesting “Wild Card” thought. Where did you get/make the image at the top btw?

  3. Harry McCracken Says:

    Thanks, Relyt! Image is a borrowed photo of the old original iBook…


  4. Dylan Says:

    Looking at your specs: 13″ screen and a nice roomy keyboard, Core 2 Duo CPU, decent amount of RAM and hard disk space, Bluetooth and a MagSafe power adapter, thinner, lighter design….

    aren’t you describing MacBook Air?

  5. Harry McCracken Says:

    Dylan: Kind of! But it’s incredibly thin, in an aluminum case, etc. I’m thinking something in a plastic case that’s probably not quite as impressive a feat of engineering.


  6. Steve K Says:

    Another reason why Apple should make a netbook is that the OS is less relevant on netbooks. Since you are not going to be running a whole lot on it other than the included apps, there is very little advantage that running Windows brings.

    On another note, I’ve always wondered if Foleo would have been successful if Palm had chosen to market it as a netbook instead of as a Treo peripheral.

  7. topchat Says:

    I’m a sceptic on netbooks. I do have a stripped down iBook G4 that pretty much matches the functions of an eee PC albeit bigger and heavier but then I prefer the bigger screen and larger keyboard. Given the residual value of the iBook it seems a viable alternative and I would have bought one if I didn’t have one spare. If I don’t fancy the bulk my fallback is my iPhone – actually I usually make do with the iPhone.

    I’d like to see a variant of the iPhone which mimics the old Sculley Navigator idea – it is thicker but opens up to show a touchscreen twice as large as the iPhone with 32/64GB storage and a USB port at a mobile network subsidized price of $4-500. Pocketable but not too much bulk. It worked for slim diaries so why not for iPhone+

  8. gametheoryman Says:

    A netbook alone doesn’t offer enough profit, but offer them as thin clients for the iHome:

    –the capabilities of a 4-8 core desktop, 1T+ of storage
    –AirPort Express Base station
    –goosed-up Xgrid that handles multiple simultaneous users
    –AppleTV done right
    –functionality of Tivo done better

    IHome does all but the simplest work of the whole family’s computer needs, who each accesses it through a thin client–netbooks, freestanding wireless keyboards and monitors, iPhones, or remotes. The family cloud brought close.

    When family members are away they use the cloud itself, but it’s primary disadvantage, speed, remains.

    It’s your family computer workhorse; iPod-iTunes central for music & video; your telecommunications hub; your cable, satellite, or Tivo box.

    And it’s all available today. (Alright, the goosed up Xgrid needs work, but other Unix systems have simultaneous user capabilities.)

    The whole family of Apple users: one $3-4K iHome plus several hundred apiece for the thin clients.

    Which multi-user household would not want one?

    This might make real money for Apple.

  9. pond Says:

    I’m sure that Apple has several alternatives running prototypes; as you say, the real question is, ‘Would they release any of these commercially?’ and the answer depends mostly on economics — what price point gives them decent (apple-style) margins, how many they might sell at that price point, what sort of effect the device at that price point would have on MacBooks.

    My speculation is that Apple is focusing on 2 main alternatives:

    1. the long-rumored Apple Tablet. This is likely a 7″ touch-screen running minimal osX, would be sold as part of the iPod platform, mostly as a WiFi-media player. The iPod Touch grows up, in other words. Surf the net with bigger screen, also pick up your iTunes movies and tv shows anywhere in the house. My further speculation on this one would be that it will run on the new-gen PA Semi CPU for which, it is said, Apple bought PA Semi.

    2. a netbook. This would likely be 9″ or even 10″ screen, as the 7″ netbook variants garner a lot of complaints. This one runs full-on Mac-style OSX, and so it will need to wait for two tech developments: ‘snow leopard’ which Apple promises will be smaller, more compact, and nimbler than Leopard; and the soon-to-be-released dual-core Atom chips from Intel (once Intel manages to fix their QA testing facilities to make Atoms more available).

    So, I wouldn’t expect either of these before Spring 09 at the earliest. By then Apple should have a better idea on how bad the economy is and how receptive it might be to new ‘toys’ of this nature. (Netbooks in general seem to be feeling some pressure to lower prices, which means lower margins; and Apple won’t jump into any market where that’s the case!)

  10. SimonSharks Says:

    I don’t think you can call a 12″ or 13″ screen a netbook in my opinion.

    I would like to see Apple produce a sub £500 netbook that is a 10″ shrink of the new MacBooks. Essentially half the price and half the features of a MacBook, no DVD so it’s super light and durable with an aluminum unibody case.

    What puts me off netbooks at present is the slow Atom chip, Apple should wait for a more powerful version before doing a netbook. If Apple did a netbook, I would buy one and I bet many Mac fans would opening a new revenue stream for Apple, so I don’t see why Apple shouldn’t do one when the technology is right.

  11. RichyS Says:

    I don’t see what real benefit your cutdown ‘netbook’ will give Apple. It’ll probably just chisel sales from the rest of the Macbook line, and make the Air look a little pricey.

    Essentially people use netbooks for web browsing, a bit of email, and occaisional doc editing. The first 2 can be done happily enough with an iPhone.

    For this reason, I’ve been advocating a convertible/tablet/netbook form factor based upon the iPod Touch/iPhone. Have a 9″ display in the same 3:2 proportion as the iPhone, and same glass covering/capacitative touch panel. You can also run it in ‘laptop’ mode with the keyboard swivelled out. No need for a cramped touchpad, as you’ve got the screen. The keyboard API for the iPhone can just take input from the hardware keyboard — maybe a little recoding to the OS, and none required from the apps (they’re all Cocoa Touch, so properly OO). The App Store can deliver all the apps you’ll need for your new netbook — Apple just need to release cut down versions of iWork to do the doc editing.

    The current iPhone hardware can cope with the netbook just fine. The current ARM processor is underclocked as it is, maybe they could ramp this up (room for a bigger battery in this form factor). If the screen res increases, you might need a separate GPU, but again, this won’t break any of the apps.

    Syncing can be via MobileMe/iTunes — does anyone have a netbook as their only computer? You won’t really need any interface ports other than a dock connector. Webcam: who cares, but Apple could turn around the iPhone camera. GPS would be pretty much a 1st in the netbook market, and may be included. What else would you need a USB port for? A mouse? You’ve got multi-touch. HSDPA? Built in. Flash drive? Sync to iDisk. Printer? Maybe… but my printer can use Bluetooth and wifi!

    A netbook with an iPhone core will have WAN access, and will be a godsend to mobile network operators to sell their lovely mobile broadband (laptops with mobile broadband are certainly the current big thing in the UK).

    I can’t see Apple doing a cheap full OS X netbook. You simply don’t need full OS X in a small ‘cheap’ computer.

  12. Free Netbook Says:

    you never know what apple will do D:

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