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Warming Up to An Apple Netbook — Maybe

We know that the tech media can’t stop talking about netbooks, particularly the one missing from the market, and that’s a model with an Apple label on it. It’s also not certain yet, despite what the pundits say, if the netbook will actually survive beyond its short-term success.

What isn’t being understood here is that there are such things as fads. For whatever reason, a product, a service, or a person, seems to become a larger-than-life phenomenon. You think of the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame here. You can’t stop talking about something, and yet you simply move onto another fad the next day or the next week.

I would, for example, put Twitter into that category. Yes, I know some of you can’t wait to get to your Mac or PC in order to deliver a daily — or hourly — diet of 140 characters worth of pithy comments. We have our own Twitter presence too. But how long will it take for that practice to get old? Will millions of people who embraced the “tweet” as part of their daily routine wake up one morning and decide that, well, they have other things to do and maybe they’ll post later. After a few days of this, they go on to another craze.

Sure, the netbook has its attractions. They are small and cute and — above all — cheap. If you can’t afford a full-featured note-book computer, getting one of these things for $300 or so might make sense, particularly if it performs all or most of the functions you expect from a standard note-book.

Apple’s response to the concept has so far been that the iPhone and iPod touch perform basic netbook functions, such as email and the Web. They have maintained that the existing PC netbooks all provide poor customer experiences, from crowded keyboards to subpar performance.

Now I can see the logic behind the former. Yes, I’m accustomed to typing on the iPhone’s virtual keyboard, but if I want to go beyond a sentence or two, I require the physical, full-sized version, such as the one on my MacBook Pro. Squeezing everything together a little too much can present a bit of an obstacle, though I suppose you’d eventually get used to it. As to performance, well it’s true that some folks have already hacked Mac OS X to install on one of those things, and they say performance is decent enough for basic computing tasks, so I don’t know.

Perhaps Apple is just using a little spin control until they can get their corporate heads around a viable strategy, or maybe they are just hoping that netbooks will simply become another failed PC strategy, such as the media center, after the economy improves and people can buy the real things once again without suffering pain in the wallet.

Then again, Apple may be engaging in one of their classic efforts at misdirection. While you look at one possibility for a new Apple product, they are doing something else. However, I suspect most of the concepts are already out there, although it may take a combination of some of them to arrive at what may now be in the final prototype stages in Apple’s top secret test labs.

With the introduction of the grown-up Amazon Kindle DX, you have to wonder if you are seeing a vision that takes you closer to Apple’s solution.

Basically the Kindle, with all its attractions for books and, with the DX, for textbooks and perhaps newspapers, is still the one trick pony. Images may be wonderful, but they are still somewhat slow to generate and are limited to black and white.

You probably already know that there is a Kindle application for the iPhone, which you can use to purchase and download the very same content. That’s where Amazon makes the lion’s share of its profits from the Kindle venture anyway, since they are not traditionally a hardware maker. I suspect they envision the Kindle in the same fashion as a printer maker considers its pricing strategy. They are designed to generate income after the sale; books for the former and consumables for the latter.

Apple, on the other hand, works in the reverse. Content, such as software, music and movies, are designed to move more hardware. If you buy an iPod and don’t download music from iTunes, fine and dandy. Apple still made a sale.

So consider the possibilities of a tablet computer similar in size to the Kindle. Only it displays full color, and is powerful enough to deliver the same breadth of features as the iPhone, only with a larger screen and perhaps with even speedier processing. Buttons and switches and what-not are minimal. You do most everything, as with the iPhone and iPod touch, via a virtual keyboard. Kindle software is there for the same content that Amazon offers, and with a larger screen you get the benefits of the DX, plus the ability to read magazines, newspapers and text books in full color.

If you want, you would be able to connect a regular set of wireless input devices, and perhaps prop up your Apple tablet with a stand from a third-party for more sustained computing chores. So Apple might take the netbook concept way beyond what PC makers, with their limited visions, can muster.

I might even find myself buying one of those things, and that would be progress, at least for me.