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

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.