In WWDC reshuffle, clues to Apple’s netbook plans?

David Braue
9 June, 2009
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Another Apple launch, another several reasons to escalate the Global Financial Crisis by whipping out the plastic once again; Apple sure does have a knack for feeding our inner gadget lust.

Yet as the analysis concludes on what was actually a relatively unsurprising launch – all of the details, down to the this-is-so-obscure-there’s-only-one-way-this-could-have-been-known-and-that’s-if-Apple-intentionally-leaked-it digital compass, were already known in advance – my attention has wandered, as it is wont to do, to the bigger picture. And that bigger picture relates to the now-mythical Apple netbook, tablet, or whatever you want to call it.

I have expressed my rather strong views on why Apple needs to launch a netbook, and quick smart, here and here. Indeed, in recently reviewing Samsung’s new N120 netbook – a pretty nice piece of machinery, if I may say so – my only complaint has been that it’s not running Mac OS X.

Apple has avoided jumping into the industry’s race to the bottom for what I can only attribute to its standard business practice when considering new markets: hold back, see what’s popular with consumers and what’s not, then improve on it and add a price premium to differentiate from the dime-a-dozen contenders.

Vendors I’ve spoken to in the past have referred to this as the “why would I slit my own throat?” strategy, and it works a treat for Apple because Apple is not subject to the same natural forces of competition as its competitors. But it has also kept Apple out the market until prices rise to the point where netbooks find their natural balance between price and features.

With still-circulating rumours about Apple’s mass touchscreen orders circulating and money now on an ARM processor-based device due out before year’s end, I reckon that Apple’s WWDC launch has given us the strongest clues yet as to where the new device will fit into its lineup.

I say this because of Apple’s reshuffling of the MacBook line: two 13-inch MacBook ‘unibody’ models have been promoted to MacBook Pros, getting a slight specification boost and leaving the popular MacBook brand with just one low-end entrant. This move gives the MacBook Pro family a low-end entrant that satisfies many users’ desire for a full-powered notebook that happens to have a small screen.

But what of the MacBook brand? It seems unlikely that Apple would sequester all of its notebook innovation up in the MacBook Pro family and leave poor, little ol’ MacBook to swing in the wind. Rather, I think this latest reshuffle is Apple’s way of paving the way for the introduction of its touchscreen netbook (or netbooks) as low-end MacBooks – a brand that has long carried the flag for Apple’s notebook lineup.

The bottom line. I think Apple will either park the new devices inside the MacBook family or, if it’s determined to carve out a separate niche, launch them as the MacBook touch. Either way, the key here is pricing: the current MacBook’s price of $1599 is now the ceiling for the MacBook family, and happens to be about twice the price of most competing netbooks these days (the N120 costs $899, by way of example, while the popular Acer Aspire One starts at $749). That gives Apple lots of latitude to position its new touchscreen MacBooks at price points of, say, $999 and $1299 while preserving the perception that they are inexpensive MacBooks – rather than coming off as expensive netbooks.

Another potential reason for juggling products in the MacBook family lies in the processors they are likely to use. Most current netbooks use Intel’s low-powered Atom processor, which has been tied to Intel graphics but later this year will be melded with an NVIDIA graphics subsystem to produce fast but low-powered netbook architecture. New netbooks from Acer and Chinese maker SkyTone, which announced its coming Alpha 680 in April, will run Google’s Android operating system on a platform based on ARM processors and any of several graphics subsystems.

The distinction is more than academic: if Apple chooses an Intel architecture for its devices, they will more than likely be running a stripped-down version of Mac OS X Snow Leopard. This would be excellent because it would provide access to the full range of Mac applications. Apple could even overcome the limitation of using a relatively low-powered Atom processor by including a grunty graphics processing unit that would take over the heavy-duty number crunching thanks to OpenCL.

An ARM architecture, on the other hand, would suggest that Apple’s device will in fact run iPhone 3.0 instead of Mac OS X. In other words, it will be an iPhone-plus rather than a MacBook Pro-minus. Apple could kill off the sole Intel-powered MacBook that remains, positioning the MacBook (or MacBook touch) category as an ARM-powered, ‘mini-me’ version of the MacBook Pro. This would simplify Apple’s portable computing lineup while creating a whole new opportunity for the new touch-based portable devices.

Such a move also presages a whole new usage model and suggests Apple would then develop iPhone-compatible versions of key apps like Pages, Numbers and Keynote that would automatically take advantage of the bigger screens on the new devices, where available. It is unlikely to port the whole of Snow Leopard to the ARM architecture, although it warrants saying that Apple could possibly get significant speed boosts by porting just OpenCL onto the ARM architecture and associated graphics platform.

This would be a win both for iPhone/iPod touch users and for buyers of the new devices, giving them Mac-parity applications on a power-efficient device that provides everything netbook users want – while allowing Apple to continue its habit of releasing a category-defining product.

Many have suggested that the release of the new device may be carried onstage by a revived Steve Jobs in just a few weeks, although I think for now the point is more an emotional rather than a strategic one. But if you’re out there, Steve, we’re all waiting with baited breath on both counts. I will be buying a netbook by early September, and I hope it’s an Apple – MacBook or otherwise.

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