Imagining the Apple or Google Netbook

There is a lot of speculation here in the Silicon Valley that Apple will be launching its low-cost netbook early in 2009, possibly to eclipse CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, next year. I figured it would be fun to imagine what an Apple netbook might look like and, given that a number of us are speculating that Google is on a similar path, contrast it with the anticipated Google offering. Think of this as an interesting, and relatively safe, thing to chat about during the holidays.

We’ll start by talking about what a netbook is, and will evolve into, and then we’ll talk about the anticipated products from Apple and Google. 

The Hot Netbook

The netbook is currently one of the hottest products in the market and, given the current economic crisis; it is likely to eclipse all other types of PCs. This is because a netbook is designed to primarily connect to the web, be very portable, have cell-phone-like battery life, and cost in the $400 to $800 range. This is also a class of product that is already being sold and subsidized by cell phone carriers in several European countries, dropping the purchase prices below the $100 range.

These are products that shine brightest when they are connected, and will be the highest profile product as WiMax rolls to market because, coupled with the low relative cost of WiMax, they should be a phenomenal bargain. This class of product tends to live off the Web, and is the first really big step towards a computing experience that is truly appliance like.

In use, they will increasingly be how we consume video entertainment while away from our TVs. Over time I expect them to become increasingly more personalized, and the price range to expand as technology and subsidies lower the entry price, and high-end halo products redefine the capability and price of the most expensive products.

Netbooks also particularly appeal to women, and are one of the few that actually targets them. In short, if the laptop defined the 90’s in the PC space, the netbook may well redefine this decade by the time it ends. 

The Apple Netbook

Currently, Apple is in a world of hurt. The economy has lowered the effective top end of the notebook market to $800, and virtually all of Apple’s products are now too expensive for the mass market. Apple has wisely shifted their laptop marketing effort to promote just how “green” and attractive their laptops are. But, if folks can’t afford them, they still won’t sell in enough volume to keep Apple’s investors happy.

This is why many people think Apple will be releasing a netbook in a few weeks: to bring a product down into where their buyers can afford the offering. The expectation, however, is that it likely will be unique to this emerging market.

Like all of Apple’s other laptops, the product would likely be built from aluminum, but would run a version of the MacOS that might be more closely related to the iPhone than the traditional Mac. It would also be able to run many of the same application store applications that the iPhone runs, but using a larger screen and a keyboard. This could be a product that begins to truly redefine the Apple experience.

Obviously, an Apple netbook would be a showcase for iTunes video content, and I would expect it to have a strong video subsystem coupled with a very frugal primary CPU. Because Apple tends to value thin over almost everything else, I would expect this to be in line with the MacBook air in terms of thickness, but use a smaller screen. It’s also likely to be the first PC-like product from Apple to have touch capability.

One real possibility might be wedding the Apple netbook to an iPhone so that, if you have both, you only need one data plan. This has been problematic for most of the players in the market, but Apple has unique capabilities here, and this would give them a very powerful advantage.

Apple’s biggest problem might be that it is still struggling with Cloud-based services, so while I think it will lead in design; it may lag in these critical services. 

Google’s Netbook

The T-Mobile G1 is not a very attractive phone, but it showcases Google’s unique pragmatism. The G1 was the design that was largely used to test the Android OS, and because of this it could quickly be brought to market allowing Google to have product in the critical fourth quarter on store shelves. Better-designed products will show up next year from a variety of vendors, including Motorola, who could clearly use the help.

Google’s strength lies where Apple is weak: It clearly gets the Cloud, and this would be where its netbook shines. Google will license to a number of manufacturers, and the netbooks would run a derivative of the Android platform, allowing application store developers to access a more rapidly growing group of increasingly diverse platforms. Since Google won’t be building its own hardware, designs will likely come from existing partners, suggesting that some of the netbooks may come from companies like HTC and Motorola.

This suggests some rather unique and creative designs, and a very heavy focus on the cellular network in terms of connectivity. The Google netbook should particularly excel when connected to the company’s rich online set of properties, but I would expect it to lag on processing and graphics performance. The end result should be better battery life, though.

Final Thoughts

The netbook market is in its infancy, and there are already some great products like the unique Vivienne Tam netbook entering the market. But this is only the beginning, and whether Apple enters the market in January or later, I can’t imagine they will ignore it given the current economic conditions and the opportunity to go around Microsoft’s desktop dominance.

Slowly but surely, we are moving to ever more personal computing devices tied to services in the cloud. Imagining how these will change our lives will be keeping a lot of us busy over the next few years. Appliance computing is coming, and it appears the netbook is leading the charge.

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