Apple Netbook Possible But Unlikely

"I think that it's interesting how this [rumor] has come out not that far after pretty strong indications from Apple corporate on their financial call from last quarter that they still don't believe they can make a laptop cheap enough to both call it a netbook and still call it Apple," said Michael Oh, founder and president of Tech Superpowers, a Boston-based Apple partner.

Sources have reportedly told several Taiwan-based media outlets that Wintek, a maker of small and midsize computer displays, and Quanta, the builder of Apple's MacBook and iMac computers, are working with Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple on a 10-inch netbook with a touch-screen display that could be released in the second half of this year.

Wintek and Quanta are both headquartered in Taiwan.

Apple's public attitude towards netbooks, small form-factor notebooks that are generally priced at under $500, can charitably be described as hostile. "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," Apple CEO Steve Jobs told financial analysts last October. Tim Cook, acting head of the company while Jobs is on medical leave, reiterated that message in January.

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On the other hand, netbooks as a category are experiencing runaway success even as demand for just about every other PC product category has shriveled up in the current recession. Oh was hesitant to guess that Apple could be on the brink of making a purely economic decision to build a netbook, but conceded that many companies are changing things up these days.

"First, their financial results have been so positive even up to Dec. 31, when a lot of other companies were struggling," Oh said. "It would be very unlike them to change all the processes that have worked so well, their design cycle, their ecosystem planning and so on. But that said, these are very, very interesting times."

Oh said details about a touch-screen that appear in published reports about an Apple netbook could signify that whatever this new product might be, it's probably not a conventional netbook. He thinks Apple's "netbook" play, if it can be called that, is more likely to resemble an outsized iPhone or iPod Touch, possibly incorporating a separate Bluetooth keyboard rather than a clamshell design.

He also thinks that Apple would need to feel confident about having a developer ecosystem in place before releasing a netbook-type product that could cannibalize its MacBook sales.

"If they're going to do it, they're going to approach it by taking the iPhone or iPod Touch upwards in size. My opinion is that they'll wait until the Tablet PC is dead, and then basically build a better Tablet. And they've proven that OS X can be ported from 30-inch screens to 3-inch screens without losing much at all," Oh said.

"But also consider that Apple always thinks about the ecosystem -- think about iTunes with the iPod and the App Store with iPhone. With a netbook, the ecosystem is just as important and they would want to have their ducks in a row."