Snow Leopard is a distraction; Beatles, iTunes, netbooks, and e-books beckon

David Braue
25 August, 2009
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Like many observers out there, I have spent much time and energy this year opining about the need for Apple to break into the netbook market. Unlike many observers out there, I have not spent much time and energy this year opining about the continuing absence of Beatles music on the iTunes Store. But as Apple officially kicks off the pre-event buzz with its announcement that Snow Leopard will ship on Friday, the company will finally play its hand on both counts at its September 9 launch event.

First, the Beatles. The absence of Beatles music has been noted for years, even though it is quite possible to buy the band’s entire catalogue on CD and rip it into iTunes. Yet as the Beatles goes digital for the first time with the release of The Beatles: Rock Band on September 9 (fans will have grasped the significance of the 9-9-09 date long ago; everybody else should listen to The White Album), it’s a no-brainer to conclude that Apple’s traditionally iPod-focused September event will include the release of the entire digitally-remastered Beatles back catalogue on the iTunes Store. Consider also that Apple’s events are usually on Tuesday, but this year they have moved it to a Wednesday that “happens” to be a Beatles-significant date. Whether there is also a Beatles-branded version of Tap Tap Revenge I cannot say for sure, but when it happens remember that you read it here first.

Second, the iPod touch. Apple loves the iPod touch, which is selling like hotcakes. Long-running rumours of an iPod touch with a built-in camera and GPS, as well as more memory, seem like logical conclusions. But we already have these features in the popular iPhone, so they’re not going to set the world on fire so much as to have people saying ‘it’s about time’.

Now, the tablet. Apple has gone out of its way recently to tell the rumour mill there’s nothing to see here, thank you, nothing of importance at all, and some people are buying it based on the usual “informed sources”. This is a surefire sign that someone within Apple is feeding furphies to the blogosphere to divert attention from the real event. I think a September netbook launch would make perfect sense (and, if Steve Jobs attends the event, I’d say the chance of a major new product has gone up exponentially). Here’s why:

Snow Leopard is a distraction. We’ve known about it for months, and already have a pretty good idea of what to expect. But a new operating system is hardly worth showing if you don’t have shiny new devices on which to show off its capabilities. Why would Apple pull out its months-old iMacs and MacBooks just to show off its brand spanking new operating system? I know they’re good machines, but Snow Leopard here is the donkey, not the carrot. And if Snow Leopard were the extent of Apple’s innovation for this quarter, it would have been launched at the event, not before it.

Apple’s lack of a netbook is hurting it in key demographics. Specifically, American students are currently going back to school, and a recent survey confirmed that many are buying computers but bypassing Apple altogether in favour of cheaper Windows-based netbooks. I pointed out this issue back in April, but concrete figures confirm this is a significant missed opportunity for Apple, and something that Apple’s traditionally education-friendly management can’t have failed to notice.

The market is getting ready for Apple’s netbook. Just today I have received announcements about new netbooks from two companies that have never made them before: Viewsonic, best known for its monitors, and Nokia, known for its mobile phones. Expect others. I also have in my grubby paws the Asus Eee T91 (a.k.a. touch), a touchscreen-based netbook that seems to be a pretty good template for Apple’s own eventual touch-enabled offering (I’ll be posting a more considered review after I have more time to put it through its paces). The underpowered and under-large T91 costs $999; Viewsonic’s VNB101, an also-ran before its launch thanks to its 2.5-hour battery life, costs $699. Pricing for Nokia’s sweet-looking Booklet 3G, which claims 12 hours’ battery life, is yet to be announced, but expect it to sit close to Apple’s MacBook touch.

Nokia’s move is particularly interesting since it got blindsided by Apple viz a viz the iPhone and isn’t going to be keen to repeat that mistake (witness its recent partnership with Microsoft). In that vein, consider these new netbooks as pre-emptive strikes against Apple’s tablet; factor in the fact that these sorts of decisions (and their timing) are not made without very good reasons, and it’s a pretty good bet that Nokia knows something about Apple’s tablet that the rest of us don’t.

It works. We already know Mac OS X works fine on netbooks; even Macworld’s own editors have been building their own Frankenbooks. This would seem to contradict Apple’s long-standing contention that netbooks, er, stink. If Apple can’t build a cost-effective netbook, I’m sure Dell wouldn’t mind doing it for them. Or, perhaps, Psystar.

It makes sense. As I mentioned in the latest AMW podcast, after a recent long weekend traveling with the iPhone, I got so used to driving things with my finger that I found myself tapping the screen of my Windows notebook in an attempt to surf the Web by touch. Done right, this is a great feature – especially in portable computers where navigation is otherwise limited to futzy trackpads. I haven’t yet decided whether Asus’ implementation of touch fits the bill but an iPhone-like interface on a 10-inch screen would be a powerful combination.

Apple already has the carriers in its pocket. Built-in 3G functionality will be a key part of Apple’s tablet, and its experience with the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS has given it the chops to both add 3G alongside its carrier partners, and to make sure it works as well as customers expect.

e-Books will close the deal. Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader has really put electronic books on the map, with the units selling by the millions and new content seamlessly downloaded via mobile networks. The whole result has been to do for e-books what Apple’s iTune ecosystem did for music – and this, again, is a market that Apple can’t afford to ignore.

iTunes is already an ideal distribution mechanism for e-books, and I would expect e-book features to be a key part of iTunes 9 when it’s launched on 9/9/09 (to the strains of ‘Revolution 9′), along with a 10-inch touch-capable device on which to read them. It’s just too good an opportunity for Apple to pass up – but if Apple doesn’t jump in soon, its competitors will. (As an aside, Apple could revolutionise the currently fragmented digital sheet music market with a tablet that can sit on a music stand and scroll through downloadable sheet music page by page as the music plays).

Still TBD are battery life, which needs to trend more towards 10 hours than 3, and screen size, which will definitely be 10 inches but may also, if speculation/reports are correct, include a six-inch midrange model. Either way, this product is coming, and it needs to be coming soon so Apple can get a significant boost before the Christmas season.

Now, what I have laid here are logical arguments why the Apple netbook is imminent. However, one must always consider the possibility Apple will defy logic and hold its hardware-based announcements until October, when it traditionally updates its MacBooks – but with the MacBook refresh already out of the way for this year, a September launch (and early-October ship date) would seem to make good sense. Holding back the launch until October would push the ship date back to November, which is too close to Christmas for Apple to work out any issues before the mad holiday-season rush.

Whether or not the tablet is branded with a laser etching of the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band I cannot say. But by that point, nobody will care all that much as they’ll all have stampeded out of the auditorium to get a gander Apple’s latest revolutionary, shiny, must-have device.

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