Apple will unveil netbooks next month, says analyst

Tough economic times demand a lower-priced system, but Apple won't want to cannibalize MacBook sales

The problem with current netbooks, including those powered by open-source Linux, is that while they may sport a simplified interface and be attractively priced, they lack many of the elements that Apple has. "The vendors did not invest in everything necessary to deliver the device, including software development, partnerships with other hardware vendors and online services," Gottheil said.

To succeed, a netbook needs strong software, an online delivery system for that software and "enforced limits" on the supported peripherals, he said, pointing to Google as a possible software partner and supplier, the App Store as the delivery system and Hewlett-Packard as the most likely peripheral partner.

Gottheil's betting that Apple will unveil two netbooks next month, one about the size of the MacBook Air, the other a US$599 machine similar to the smaller Linux- or Windows-based netbooks. The time between then and a mid-year release would be required, by Gottheil's reasoning, to prime the developer pump, as Apple did earlier this year when it announced it would open the iPhone to third-party programs four months before it launched the iPhone 3G.

"I don't necessarily expect it to be a touch screen," he said. "In fact, I don't think it will. But I do think that the interface would present simple, straight-forward choices."

The App Store connection also makes sense, said Gottheil, even if Apple doesn't make much money from its cut of software sales, as it's claimed on iPhone program sales. "Because all the applications are delivered through the iTunes App Store, Apple will maintain sustained relationships with users, making it easier to up sell and cross-sell," he said.

On the down side, although this different tack would reduce MacBook cannibalization, some would be inevitable, Gottheil predicted. And if Apple sells the device at the US$599 price he expects -- that number derived by parsing Jobs' comment that the company doesn't "know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk" -- that still puts its system at nearly twice that of the lowest-priced netbooks.

"The issue, really, is that even Macs are too complicated for some people," Gottheil said. "But a [Mac] netbook doesn't have to be all things for all people."

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