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Is the Netbook a Bait and Switch Scheme?

All right, you know that Apple has been urged repeatedly to jump into the burgeoning netbook market as quickly as it can. These trimmer, slimmer note-book-style computers are supposedly the only real profit center for PC makers during the economic downturn.

Unfortunately, when you charge a “mere” $300 or $400 for a note-book computer, regardless of what you call it, potential profits are slim. The only possible way to make decent money is to sell boatloads of them. Or, perhaps, add customization options to let you create the one you want with lots of add-ons, which, of course, means extra money for the PC makers to take to the bank.

Now there are several considerations about netbooks that aren’t getting so much coverage. It’s all mostly how well they are doing, which models and features are available, and whether Apple is ready to release their own entry into this relatively new market segment.

One thing not often mentioned is just what a netbook is good for. Now consider taking a low-powered chip, such as Intel’s new Atom processor, integrated graphics, a tiny hard drive along with a crowded keyboard and small screen and you get what is essentially a smaller version of a regular note-book. In fact, many of these models come across in exactly that way.

They are largely intended for email, Web surfing and perhaps light word processing. Indeed, to save money, many of the entrants into this market use Linux rather than Windows XP (Vista is just too bloated to work efficiently). While Linux may not seem so suitable for a desktop PC, actually it can work fairly well within a carefully controlled environment. Certainly a browser such as Firefox can be used successfully, since it has an interface very close to that of the Windows version. Email can be retrieved online from most ISPs, and Google Apps may be sufficient for light word processing. Or just use a free alternative to Microsoft’s suite, such as Open Office.

Indeed, as we previously reported, HP is considering whether Google’s open source smartphone operating system, Android, might be suitable for a netbook if given the appropriate modifications. Microsoft, in the meantime, is claiming (and no doubt hoping) that the forthcoming Windows 7 will be suitable as well. That remains to be seen.

In any case, as PC makers are gearing up their new generation netbooks, they are obviously trying to move these product upscale. You’ll be able to choose from larger screens and, by clicking off a few options in the customize pages, outfit them really close to a regular note-book. Indeed, the actual difference is apt to blur as the prices of the two get closer and closer.

That’s, of course, what the PC makers want. Indeed, you wonder if the netbook might to some extent be a placeholder product to grab sales during an economic downturn. Perhaps they are hoping against hope that, once people can afford something better, they’ll abandon netbooks like the plague and buy more profitable gear. Does that come close to bait and switch? Not necessarily, but you can see what I’m getting at.

On the other hand, just making more expensive netbooks would be more than sufficient, since whatever sells is just fine for any of these companies. Of course, Apple might be more demanding, but in the end, if netbooks continued to gain traction, you can bet they will get involved.

Understand, gentle reader, that the closest thing to a netbook that I’m apt to use is the iPhone. To me, the larger the screen the better for extended computing, and I don’t like restricted keyboards, at least physical ones, although I continue to tolerate the touch version on my iPhone 3G.

The real danger to the PC makers, however, is that large numbers of customers may decide they don’t need a full-sized note-book PC, now or ever. The more limited functions of the netbook are more than sufficient to satisfy their needs. I can tell you that I know a fair number of people that do fit into this category, and if there was a Mac netbook or a grown-up iPhone, they would be highly likely to acquire one to serve as their sole computing device.

This may be a reason why Apple won’t mix Macs and netbooks, and keep them totally separate. As you may recall, both Steve Jobs and Tim Cook have already stated on more than one occasion that they regard the iPhone line as Apple’s netbook, at least for now.

Regardless of where the netbook market takes us, it would be nice to see one that truly advances technology. Today’s netbooks are largely shrunken note-books, and little more. I suppose we’ll have to wait, yet again, for Apple to define the state of the art; that is, if it needs any defining, and that remains an open question.