The case for an Apple netbook

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One of Steve Jobs’ sound bites from his appearance on the quarterly conference call with financial analysts Tuesday has been repeated several times since then: “We don’t know how to make a $500 computer that’s not a piece of junk.”

Maybe Apple needs to take more of a look around at the rest of the industry, then, because there certainly are computers in the $500 and less category that aren’t pieces of junk. And Apple could do better than the competition, I’m sure.

I admit that general-purpose computers in the sub-$500 category leave one wanting for more features and horsepower. Generally, you get what you pay for if you’re looking for a desktop machine that costs less than $500. And a replacement for the Mac mini, or an LC-style desktop machine, is not what I’m suggesting.

Netbooks—a burgeoning segment of mini-laptops designed for limited use, such as e-mail, Web surfing and light productivity work—are increasingly occupying that category. And Apple is sadly absent from the market.

When pressed by an analyst during the Q&A portion of Tuesday’s conference call, Jobs suggested that the iPhone fit the netbook category quite neatly for many of Apple’s users, as it provides e-mail, Web surfing and third-party software support quite effectively.

But the iPhone’s pocket-sized form factor can be a liability. The iPhone is fine for occasional Web access and e-mail, but the on-screen keyboard makes typing up anything but terse replies to e-mails difficult. And the limited screen size can make navigating Web pages confusing. The lack of cut-and-paste ability—something that many of us are sure Apple will eventually remedy (and that others of us are hitting our heads against our desks waiting for Apple to fix)—is also a serious deficiency when it comes to clear communication.

Meanwhile, companies including MSI, Asus, Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo are populating the market with mini-laptops that use low-power processors, integrated graphics, small screens and keyboards, and have no optical drives, with very limited (or no) expansion capabilities. Many of them eschew hard disk drives for flash-based storage instead. This entire market has erupted in a very short time, since the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Association’s introduction of the XO Laptop in 2007.

Perhaps such systems qualify as “Junk” in Jobs’ and Apple product managers’ eyes, since, for the most part, these systems aren’t effective replacements for a general-purpose laptop such as a MacBook or MacBook Pro. Compromises in quality and design have certainly been made by netbook manufacturers to help keep prices low, though the overall quality and utility of netbooks is increasing dramatically with each new model.

I freely admit that netbooks are currently unsuited for some of the processor-intensive tasks that Mac-bound creative pros depend on—and they’ll probably remain so for some time. But they’ve certainly carved out a niche for themselves for road warriors looking for an exceptionally mobile system to use to stay in touch, without some of the restrictions of a palm-sized device like an iPhone. Some students and schools find them useful. And consumers looking for a lightweight device that occupies less room than a full-sized notebook can use a netbook while they’re at work or away from home to help stay in touch.

I admit that I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve a bit, here. I’ve taken some guff around the office for my abiding love of Apple’s eMate 300—the company’s ill-fated Newton MessagePad derivative designed especially for education, which used a translucent clamshell design and a keyboard… a proto-iBook, if you will. Much of what makes netbooks cool and useful can be found in this now-ancient device, and I still think Apple’s eMate design is great.

The eMate 300 cost $800 when it debuted more than a decade ago. I wonder how much less it would cost if Apple today made an equivalent device, based around the work that it’s done with the iPhone and the MacBook.

Given how far Apple has come with the iPhone and how adept its research and development and industrial design departments are at creating cool things that work well, I can’t help but imagine that if Apple really wanted to, it could make a netbook that would blow these other companies away.

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