Jason Perlow wrote a great piece tonight on why Apple should license OS X to netbook builders like Asus, Dell, and HP. This certainly hasn't been a strategy that has gone well for Apple, nor is it anything they're likely to do any time soon. However, it's the last thing they need to do, and, as much as the "branding" buzzword irks me, I really think it would dilute the Apple brand (there, I said it...brand, brand, brand). That is, after all, what sells Apples (that, and a pretty great OS on some nifty hardware).
I actually got to thinking about this earlier today, completely independent of Perlow's article, when I noticed my 13-year old absorbed in a game on his iPod Touch. It wasn't exactly Grand Theft Auto in terms of processor demands, but the graphics, driven by the internal accelerometer and touch commands (downloaded for free from the App Store) were pretty intense. Solid 3D, very smooth, and crystal clear. Obviously, Apple has figured out how to make a stripped down version of OS X run quite nicely on limited hardware.
Just as Apple provides users with premium laptops (at a premium price), premium MP3 players (at a premium price), and premium smartphones (at a premium price), they could own the premium netbook market by basing their model on their iPod Touch. Make it 10" convertible tablet with the same multitouch interface found on the Touch, dispense with a touchpad since the touchscreen would give you everything you need, and you'd have a very thin, light, snappy netbook in a new wide form-factor for which customers would gladly pay $600-$700.
Make it $500 at the educational level and dump the white 13" MacBooks they're still making for schools and they could be huge in education again. Build an ecosystem of developers through their existing App Store infrastructure and Classmate PC (and anyone else targeting educational markets) would be hard-pressed to compete.
Although they would certainly cannibalize some of their low-end MacBook sales, they'd keep people in the Apple family. The hardware (in mini form with the Touch) and software (again on the Touch and iPhone) already exist in-house. Apple doesn't need to license anything. They just need to leverage what they already do very well.
Of course, since that probably won't ever happen, I expect I'll still be on target to buy a whole bunch of convertible Classmates. I'll leave Apple to keep selling $1500 laptops in a recession. No stimulus package could get me to give them a second glance with their current lineup.