Questioning the netbook phenomenon

Can any computer maker, even Apple, ignore the trend?

April 23, 2009 (Computerworld) It's human nature to get on the bandwagon of a "good thing." Take the screaming hype that is the netbook phenomenon, for example. Although it's clear the netbook trend is real, my hype meter wagged over into the "tilt" field when I read these words from Dan Nystedt of the IDG News Service:

"The network will truly become the computer, as Sun Microsystems used to say. Or in more modern terms, the Cloud for consumers will have arrived."

Nystedt was writing to express surprise at Apple COO Tim Cook's recent negative comments about netbooks. Like Nystedt, I don't think any computer manufacturer can afford to ignore the netbook trend. I've even suggested in the past that Apple deliver a low-cost, netbook-style Mac.

I also can't agree with Cook that the netbook experience is voided by what he described as "cramped keyboards, terrible software, junky hardware, very small screens, and just not a consumer experience" during a quarterly financial conference call on Wednesday. On the other hand, Cook's apparent condemnation of all existing netbooks does not mean that Apple is pooh-poohing the entire idea. Macworld's editor in chief, Jason Snell, makes this point better than I could in his article Apple to netbooks: Drop dead.

Snell writes: "Apple ... often runs down its competitors in a category before introducing its own game-changing product in that category." I've found that statement to be true as well.

If you buy into that interpretation, Cook's comments imply that Apple's netbook product, if it has one, is likely to be one of two things:

1.) An iPhone 3.0 software-based, iPhone-derivative tablet-like device that Apple does not at all position as a netbook, but that is likely to be half smartphone, half small form-factor computer. Apple's incredible success with its iPhone App Store has to be factored into the advantage that such a device would have.

2.) A lower-cost Mac with limitations that keep it from cutting into other Mac sales, but with a very intriguing, game-changing hardware design. More than likely, this option isn't close to launch.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is also positioning Windows 7 for netbooks, and the message seems to be clear to me. It's aimed at netbook manufacturers: You want to use Windows 7 on netbooks? We're going to use some of our power at generating negative press to outmuscle you into paying the full notebook freight for Windows 7 instead of the lesser price for reduced-functionality Windows 7. Microsoft isn't targeting this at netbook buyers. If it were, it wouldn't be sending the message now. It would wait and quietly slip it under the rug at Windows 7 launch time.

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Scot Finnie

Computerworld (US)

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