Thursday, 16 July 2009

Apple and the Netbook?

The Netbook generation is now well established. The world is largely feeling the economic pinch. Consumers aren't buying the biggest fastest desktop PCs anymore, but instead tending to buy either full featured Notebook computers or increasingly cut-down, low-end but adequate Netbook machines for basic net connectivity, browsing, email and simple document processing. The user experience on these small screen, small keyboard, underpowered devices leaves a lot to be desired, but hey they are cheap and small and do a job, so many people put up with it. Apple has for some time maintained that they don't believe they could make a Netbook which isn't a crap user experience and so have yet to enter the marketplace. Recent rumours suggest that a new Netbook sized device from Cupertino might be launched this year or early next so what might it look like?

When Apple launched the iPhone, they made much of the problems of tiny button keyboards which took up a third of the real estate on most smartphones at the time. I don't see them launching a NetBook competitor which features a cramped sub-size keyboard either, which suggests that a full size touch screen keyboard would be more likely. This would also define a form factor which differentiates the new device from its hugely successful notebook range and revive images of a mac tablet. Cost permitting, I would expect their alu-unibody design to be re-exploited again in this new offering. But a larger version of an iPhone as a tablet/Netbook? No - however it's likely that Apple will re-invent the Netbook/Tablet PC just like they did with the phone. And like the phone, it won't be the cheapest, but it will be highly desirable and something that others follow and try to emulate.

There are 3 things that Apple are very good at and will undoubtedly apply to this new product:
1. Exploiting existing assets - In this case it probably means the operating system OSX, the AppStore and mushrooming developer community, their online cloud element "MobileMe", and even perhaps relationships with Cellular Operators? I wouldn't be surprised if a rosetta-like layer in the OS allows existing Mac dashboard widgets and iPhone Apps to run without modification on day one, automatically being scaled for the bigger screen size (9-10") and looking gorgeous.
2. Carefully positioning within the existing product range - distinction without cannibalism as I call it. When they launched the iPhone, they didn't cannibalise sales of iPod, and with any Netbook/Tablet they won't risk damaging NoteBook sales. So there will be some distinctive features and a price point which achieves this.
3. Innovation aimed at their customers - this will include innovative features not because they are possible but because they are attractive and useful to the customer base the product is aimed at. And this customer base is often made up of multiple distinct sectors, e.g. education, business, consumer, so it means a feature is there because it provides something for everyone. If a micro-projector was included for example, it would offer business folk the ability to present slides anywhere, but would also allow kids in school to show their work to the class easily. Similarly a slim tablet form factor which makes it extremely easy to carry around during the working day, could also lend itself to being a high-res digital photo frame when idling/charging/syncing at home on the sideboard.

We shall see if any of this happens at all ...

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