Apple’s Debatable Need for a Netbook

As 2008 comes to a close, it’s time to review past trends and consider what’s around the corner. Arguably, the hot product of the year is one that didn’t even exist until October 2007: the lowly netbook. In 2008 alone, the top two netbook vendors are forecasting 11 million devices sold; Asus anticipates selling 5 million, while Acer expects to move 6 million. First-year sales figures like this, combined with today’s news that Apple sales are down 1 percent while PCs have seen a 2 percent sales gain, are resurrecting the debate. Will Apple release a netbook-type device in 2009?

TBR Strategy is among those expecting to hear a netbook or comparable device announcement at MacWorld next month, with a product release around mid-year:

This device, which will be a closed system similar to the iPhone as opposed to a less-expensive Mac, will leverage Apple’s unique strengths in design, software and online delivery systems, challenge netbooks and fit the needs of a recessionary market. By controlling the software that can be loaded and the hardware that can be attached, Apple’s device will be simpler, easier to use and more reliable than a PC, and will excel at the functions most required by users.

TBR believes that Apple will announce the new product at MacWorld in January 2009, to become available around mid-year. It will come in two sizes, one much like the MacBook Air and one similar to a netbook, with the smaller unit priced at $599.

Like many other Apple astrologists, TBR isn’t applying the standard netbook definition to a potential Apple device in this market. Perhaps we shouldn’t either since Apple usually marches to the beat of its own drum and many consumers believe the iPhone and iPod Touch already compete with traditional netbooks. It’s not difficult to imagine Apple refining the netbook concept by leveraging a touch-enabled device similar to a large iPhone or iPod Touch. With a stylish stand and portable Bluetooth keyboard, undoubtedly Apple-branded of course, such a device could be seen as “the netbook evolved.”

On the other hand, our friends at The Apple Blog think that Apple wants no part of the netbook market:

While it’s possible to imagine someone thinking a netbook is “as good” as a cheap laptop, I don’t imagine any user thinking the same when comparing a netbook and a low-end white MacBook. No way. They’re worlds apart. I believe any user allegedly buying a netbook instead of a MacBook was never getting the Mac anyway. Apple knows this. If they get in this game, it will be with a complete product — more expensive than most netbooks — from which they’ll make a reasonable profit and not have to hope for up-selling.

Given recent netbook price cuts, I’m sure there isn’t much profit margin for Apple down here. It would also further dilute Cupertino’s computing product line and could even cannibalize sales away from the higher priced (read: more profitable) MacBook and MacBook Pro lines. Of course, that implies that an Apple netbook isn’t a companion device, which is generally how most PC netbooks are marketed.

Unfortunately, the global economic slowdown and higher product line pricing are surely contributing to lower Apple sales, so perhaps Apple is ripe for a netbook competitor. Back in October I felt that Apple would need to re-align the MacBook products to make room for just such a device. I also figured that if HP could fit an Nvidia GPU in a 13-inch PC, Apple should be able to follow suit.  Sure enough, the company took both actions a few weeks later by introducing the new aluminum MacBook; essentially a “MacBook Pro Jr.” All that’s left now is to announce the new product that they’ve made room for.

Do you think that product is a netbook competitor or is the netbook craze simply a low-cost fad that will fade away when the economy strengthens? Chime in on our netbook poll, and share your thoughts in the comments.