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  • More Apple Netbook Speculation

    May 4th, 2009

    As Amazon reportedly prepares to release a grown-up version of its Kindle book reader to handle magazines and newspapers, you have to wonder just how Apple might enter this arena. Consider there’s already a version of Amazon’s e-book software available on the iPhone, although we’re talking about a screen size that’s not particularly suitable for anything larger than a book.

    Looking at the other end of the equation, it’s fair to say that the traditional publishing industry appears to be on life support. Sure, people read books, but magazines and newspapers get slimmer and slimmer as their owners fight for the dwindling pool of potential advertisers.

    Some suggest that making a publisher’s Web-based content free was a bad business decision. Why should people pay for stuff they can see without cost on their Macs and PCs — and smartphones of course? Some newspapers, such as the Wall Street Journal, charge extra to view most online content, but the wisdom of that strategy remains uncertain. When Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation bought the financial paper, some suggested he might make abandon the subscription plan, but that hasn’t happened, although there is a discount program that gives you both the printed edition and the online version for a single price.

    That’s just the preamble. Ahead of Amazon’s announcement, speculation has it that the larger Kindle will still be black and white, but it will allow you to view larger pages at their original size. There’s a question, however, whether ads will be allowed, and if they are still prohibited by Amazon, publishers will have to charge extra for subscriptions. Indeed, I have to wonder whether it might be a better idea to offer the publications with all ads intact, and just give them away to owners of e-book readers.

    So where does Apple get involved? Well, it’s true that netbook sales are growing, still, by leaps and bounds. Maybe there is some level of buyer’s remorse involved, but that hasn’t stopped the apparent success of such products. While Apple doesn’t like to be dragged kicking and screaming into a market segment, it’s becoming more and more evident that the may have no choice with netbooks.

    No, it won’t be a shrunken note-book. That isn’t Apple’s cup of tea. As you’ve heard from this site and our tech radio show, we’re betting on an enlarged iPhone, perhaps with a tablet-type screen. If Apple can keep it light and exceptionally thin, it would become a sensational gaming platform too, but that’s an area way outside of my areas of expertise, since I’m not a gamer.

    When it comes to reading standard published content, I wonder just how Apple’s expertise in graphics display will come into play. Whatever capabilities they incorporate now, though, won’t be the result of their ongoing acquisition of personnel skilled at graphic chip design. It will probably take another year or two for the fruits of those endeavors to appear in retail products.

    Now where the Kindle falls down on the job is its relatively slow page rendering. Even the second-generation model is said to be only slightly better, and it remains to be seen how a larger version will fare, although tech pundits expect it’ll still be black and white. Meantime, an Apple netbook-style device that excels at document reading would probably have to provide simple navigation, speedy page rendering and, of course, full color. That way, you could view the digital version of a magazine and newspaper with full fidelity. It would also be nice to see a basic PDF printing capability to allow you to output those pages, if that’s what you want. Of course, it would defeat the purpose of going all-electronic, but I can see (without further explanation) where a real printed page might still be more convenient than an digital gadget with a large screen, however thin it might be.

    Now ultimately the new OLED display technology, which allows for a screen that’s actually flexible, might be a terrific solution for the ultimate netbook, particularly when it serves as an e-book reader. On the other hand, OLED is still in its infancy and the displays are costly. It wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense from a commercial standpoint for Apple to sell a netbook with an OLED screen for upwards of $1,500 or perhaps more, although perhaps a special version might suit as a technology demonstration. Compare that to the original introduction, for approximately $1,000, of the first solid state drive as an option on the MacBook Air. Prices have come down quite a bit since then, though they are still rather high compared to traditional mechanical hard drives.

    But if Apple’s netbook was offered at the expected $599 or $699 level, with a flexible OLED model as an option for those who escaped financial ruin in the current crisis, that might be a great way to enter a new market. If the folks who build OLED displays continue to improve the technology, it may reach a point in a few years where it will be competitive with LCD, and Apple will be on the cutting edge.

    Do I think this is the way it’ll play out? Actually, to a fair degree, yes. Maybe not all the ingredients I’ve suggested, but I think that, unless the netbook craze fizzles out real fast, Apple will simply have to get involved.

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