Netbook trash-talking: is Cook really buying this, or just buying time?

David Braue
27 April, 2009
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A little while ago, I argued that Apple is having its lunch fed to it in market share terms by refusing to weigh in on the multi-million dollar school netbook deals with its own offering. I also made the point that gradual price and feature creep were making the market less and less of a compromise for Apple. Apple is clearly determined to play this game on its own rules – and this became even more clear in last week’s earnings call, when Tim Cook gave the existing netbook market a verbal spray.

During the course of the call, Cook bagged the cramped keyboards, terrible software, “junky” hardware, and small screens of current netbooks as “not something that we would put the Mac brand on, quite frankly.”

That’s great and all, but Cook’s follow-on recommendation – that people looking for a small computer that does browsing and email should consider an iPod touch or iPhone (which are indeed selling well) – seems a tad too on-message. Both devices are great at what they do, but what they do not do is to replace a fully-functional computer.

Let me offer a few examples from my own thought process:

I often work on stories while away from my desk. A full-sized notebook is workable, but it’s far more effort to carry around, power for long periods and account for than a netbook the size of a paperback book. I just want something that can run Word, or Pages, or even OpenOffice, quickly enough to be usable. Yes, the screens are usable in a pinch – but the iPhone/touch lack a proper keyboard and don’t (yet) support external keyboards via Bluetooth, which would be a hugely appealing compromise.

Another use for the netbook is as a companion on trips. Being a photographic junkie, I can take a gigabyte of pictures at an afternoon family gathering and shudder to think what I might do on a week or fortnight-long trip. I want a way to download pictures onto a small device so I don’t have to bring and manage a dozen SD cards – then do basic photo manipulation such as tagging the files with keywords, importing location data from a portable GPS unit, and stitching together panorama photos while I still remember I’ve taken them. Doing this requires a number of features not found in the iPhone/touch – not the least of which are USB host support, file system access, and a body of image handling software that can deal with images at native resolution.

A recent convert to the Dropbox cloud-syncing software, I would welcome a device that has 3G connectivity built in so that my working documents are simply always available. The iPhone has the connectivity, but lacks the user interface and device support. A 3G-enabled netbook would be an obvious solution here, since it would enable true mobile access to, and syncing of, data. But to be truly meaningful, such a device would also have to support direct file access, which precludes both iPhone and iPod touch.

As much as we like the devices it currently offers, Apple has imposed a number of arbitrary restrictions that limit their usefulness as computers. That’s fine if it’s in the design brief: Apple simply doesn’t want us doing certain things with its mobile devices, which millions have accepted as the price of being in the cool group. And most are happy.

However, if Cook honestly believes people wanting a netbook will (or can) make do with an iPhone or touch, well, he’s dreaming. Like it or not, Apple needs to be in the netbook space: it can spruik its own products ’til the cows come home, but at the end of the day a cost-sensitive consumer (and aren’t we all!) weighing up a $600 netbook against the $1649 entry-level MacBook is going to make some hard choices, just as an increasing number of cash-strapped schools are doing. And, as market share figures increasingly indicate, that choice isn’t necessarily going to fall on Apple’s side.

Now, many people believe Cook’s trash-talking is a sure-fire sign that Apple is creating a functionality void that it will fill with its own product – and this would not be unprecedented. Persistent reports of massive 10-inch touchscreen orders only reinforce the claim.

In this case, I say to Apple: bring it on. Please. But bring something that’s computer enough to do what we need it to – and not just what you want to let it do.

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