Why You Shouldn’t Accept a “No” from Apple

April 23rd, 2009

Several years ago, during one of their quarterly conference calls with financial analysts, Apple again dismissed the possibility that they’d ever build a cheap Mac. The reason, often stated, is that they didn’t want to build a crappy Mac.

Well, it is true that, in the 1990s when Apple couldn’t do anything right (more or less), there were some relatively low-cost and low-powered Macs that you might consider junk. I won’t name the particular models, bearing the moniker Performa, but I’m sure our long-time readers get the idea.

However, not a few months after the conference call in question, the Mac mini came out. True, it wasn’t quite like the PC boxes that sold for comparable prices. Indeed, the internals were pretty much based on Apple’s lowest cost note-book, which at that time was the iBook. As a side note, this was yet another example of Apple’s use of note-book parts in desktop computers. Much of that design strategy debuted with the iMac, which has been designed in that fashion pretty much from day one.

In any case, although it doesn’t seem to have gotten lots of R&D love from Apple, the Mac mini has remained a consistent seller over the years. The latest model, introduced early last month, has received really good reviews, particularly as a result of the addition of NVIDIA’s 9400M integrated graphics processor, which delivers many times the performance of the previous Intel-built version.

Now over the years, Apple also poured lots of cold water on the prospects of entering the mobile phone business, at least until they had the iPhone near release. Clearly there is so much wrong with the interfaces of existing smartphones that Apple was able to deliver a cutting-edge product that, as with the iPod before it, is a great source of emulation on the part of rival companies.

More recently, the nascent netbook market has gotten lots and lots of discussion. In the days ahead of the release of Apple’s financials for the March quarter, some misguided analysts were suggesting that Apple had no alternative but to release a netbook forthwith or face serious erosion of its Mac business.

Now existing netbooks are little more than shrunken note-books with tinier processors, smaller hard drives or simply Flash memory. The keyboard is squeezed together tightly, and the screen is very small. For doing basic email and Web browsing, and perhaps running a word processor, they’re probably all right, but the jury is out on whether buyer’s remorse will set in when customers save enough money to buy a real note-book computer.

Meantime, Apple has reminded us that the existing netbooks are just cheap junk, and they have no intention whatever of building similar products. But they leave the door open just enough to suggest that they have their own ideas, and if the market is more than a flash in the pan, they would consider entering it.

You know, of course, that such statements are pretty much an admission that netbook prototypes are currently being tested at Apple headquarters, in one of the buildings that’s sealed from outside scrutiny. Sure, you’ve read reports that allegedly come from Asian contract manufacturers that might be selected to build an Apple product of this sort. There’s even a story that Apple is already placing orders on 10-inch displays to fit inside such a device.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to take such stories seriously. No company that expects business from Apple is going to admit being selected to build a future product for them. That would be akin to committing commercial suicide. The real manufacturers vying for a crack at a new Apple gadget undoubtedly engage in the bidding wars under deep confidentiality agreements, with the understanding that disclosure would put them out of the running.

In saying that, though, it’s fair to say that the real Apple netbook being developed is probably not going to imitate the PC maker’s scheme of just shrinking an existing note-book design. That may reduce development costs, but that’s not Apple’s scene.

The credible speculation has it that Apple will simply take the slim, trim iPhone operating system and deliver it in a larger product. It may even, some suggest, have a tablet screen, which essentially means a movable display with the standard iPhone-derived touch functions.

Then again, we are all working in the dark here. I don’t think there were many — or any — accurate predictions of what Apple’s iPhone would be before it was announced. The same is true for an Apple netbook. Yes, maybe it’ll be a descendant of the eMate 300, a portable computer based on the Newton operating system. Maybe it will have a built-in keyboard, though I rather suspect it’ll simply support wireless input devices.

What’s clear is that Apple hasn’t lost its ability to amaze us, so I can put all the predictions on the table that I want, with full assurance that I’ll probably be dead wrong on most counts.

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4 Responses to “Why You Shouldn’t Accept a “No” from Apple”

  1. shane blyth says:

    since I got married and have a wife that steals my macbookpro for hours on end with photos I use my mac netbook to do what I do most web browsing emails and tech news RSS feeds and the like. By Mac Netbook I mean my iPhone.
    If I didnt have the iphone i’d buy an ipod touch. Sure the screen is kinda small but it works for 95% of what I need I leave my laptop at home when going on holidays if it is less than a 2 week vacation… I just dont need it that iphone can do so much

  2. Snafu says:

    …the jury is out on whether buyer’s remorse will set in when customers save enough money to buy a real notebook computer…

    At these prices it’s impossible to get buyer’s remorse. And if you get something to supersede them, they are the perfect present. I find so incredibly funny to see Intel, Microsoft, Apple et al. diss these cuties so intensely.

    (and of course you are right: Job’s and co. noes are more of a sort of “not quite like that, wait and see”. Mac Book Mini or Ipod Touch Pro we are going to get, one way or another).

  3. DaveD says:

    I beginning to dream of a MacBook Touch.

    A mobile wireless device with the top case that goes all around and just functions like a paper-based spiral notebook cover. The top case could also become a stand to prop up the 10-inch touchscreen when watching a video or reading a book. Couple of USB ports, much better processor (consumer ultra-low voltage), solid state drive just to hold the operating system, hard disk drive for all the other stuff, and lots of memory.

    Maybe someday, probably never.

    There were so many items that I never saw coming from Apple. The iPod, iPhone, Mac Mini, iTunes store, and the really big one, the PPC-to-Intel processor switch. My MP3 player was from Creative back in 2000. But, the 2nd-gen iPod shuffle is so much easier to use and to carry around.

    Apple “think different” and think better.

  4. Andrew says:

    I too think that Apple will introduce something in between the iPod Touch and the MacBook White, though I’m with Gene in that I have no clue what it might look like.

    As to PC netbooks, I actually think that they are pretty cool. While I cannot run Linux because of my need for full Microsoft Exchange email and calendar access, some (Dell Mini 9) do rather well on OS X, and a stripped Windows XP or even Windows 2000 installation would do fine for the “support” role that a Netbook was designed for.

    I actually see Windows 2000 as a good match and am currently researching drivers to see which netbook not only has the best keyboard, but also will allow all functions under the older MS operating system.

    Why Windows 2000? It was released in the Pentium II and Pentium III era, so the Intel Atom processor will feel quite speedy. Netbooks are also not for games and other demanding media applications, and so an all-business OS with a fast browser (Opera) and Office 2003 (for Exchange) will make for a fast and reliable computer that weighs 2 lbs and costs less than $300. Of course the other reason is that I won’t have to buy any software as I already have unused Win2K and Office 2K3 licenses.

    If none of these devices support Windows 2000 then I will just use XP, even though I’m not too fond of that OS. I think that in adding compatibility with Win9x applications to the NT code just resulted in a less stable system.

    Its not a Mac, but then this is just a tool for email, web browsing and light word processing on the road or in the air. I’d just get a MacBook Air instead, but cannot justify the cost while I have a much more powerful and less expensive MacBook Pro that I use as my main portable and a Mac Pro under the desk for the heavy lifting.

    Now I would buy an iPod Touch Pro with a 10″ screen and one of Apple’s slick bluetooth keyboards over any current netbook running Windows, so long as the price was at $800 or less and most importantly, so long as I could install MS Word. Entourage I could probably do without as the current iPhone versions of iCal and Mail support Exchange, though full Entourage would be a better match for the way I work.

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