Why Apple and Google need to get into the Netbook business

Why Apple and Google need to get into the Netbook business

Summary: This crappy photo-edit of a fairly standard netbook design illustrates the power of Apple branding.ZDNet Editor in Chief Larry Dignan recently picked up a Dell Inspiron Mini 9 Ubuntu Netbook and pinged me for tech support questions regarding his new toy -- he couldn't get it functioning on his home wireless network.



This crappy photo-edit of a fairly standard netbook design illustrates the power of Apple branding.

ZDNet Editor in Chief Larry Dignan recently picked up a Dell Inspiron Mini 9 Ubuntu Netbook and pinged me for tech support questions regarding his new toy -- he couldn't get it functioning on his home wireless network. We tried a couple of different combinations of things including updating the software (the usual sudo apt-get update / upgrade routine) but to no avail. He had to call up Dell Tech support, which eventually guided him through the wireless setup and helped him debug a few wireless security issues.

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

Now, everyone knows that I am a big fan of Linux, especially Ubuntu. But right now, especially given typical end-user experiences like Larry's, I feel that Ubuntu Netbook Remix is probably not the ideal OS to hand to your typical netbook consumer who really just wants the device to "just work". ASUS has the right idea with using an extremely customized Xandros on the Eee PC, but I think there are two OSes which would have much more consumer appeal and would really launch netbooks into the stratosphere in terms of mass adoption.

The first, of course, is Mac OS X. Certainly, Apple could go ahead and tweak the regular Mac OS X it uses on their Macbook systems for a reduced OS footprint, and slap it in a nice pretty case and on Intel Atom reference hardware, which is the same strategy that all the other netbook manufacturers are taking with their Windows XP and Linux-based systems. However, given the huge popularity of the iPod and the iPhone, and the wide variety of applications available on the iPhone/iPod app store,  it might make more sense to use a modified version of what they use for that device implementation, and adapt the iPhone/iPod  reference hardware to use a larger screen and a full-size keyboard and mouse touchpad. By using the same ARM-based CPU architecture as a iPhone or iPod -- such as an XScale  -- you also would have much better battery life than an Atom-based netbook as well. Symbian-based systems such as the Psion Series 7 and the Psion Netbook have used ARM-based processors for years, and despite the fact that the company no longer manufactures them and is now centered around the vertical market space, it's end user community remains very loyal.

I foresee an "iNet" as essentially a iPhone or iPod with a keyboard, a 9-inch screen, SD-HC expansion ports, and built-in wireless G or wireless-N networking with 40GB or 80GB of storage. The larger screen would allow for a more natural browsing experience with the iPhone/iPod touch browser interface, and by using adapted iPhone software, the unit is more of a digital convergence device than an actual PC that requires maintenance. Naturally, it would be fully compatible with iTunes and effectively could act as an iPod. Essentially, this would be an iPod for business execs. The Mac implementation of OpenOffice.org 3.0 could also be ported to this architecture to provide a complete end-user experience comparable to a Wintel or Lintel netbook offers, but with the advantage of Apple panache and iPod goodness. The price point? I'm thinking $400-500.

Now, this is not to say that Apple should be the only non-traditional player looking at the netbook market. Linux could be a great OS for netbooks, but I think the way it is being approached by Dell and other manufacturers is wrong. What we really should be thinking about for netbooks is Android, not Ubuntu. With Android, Google has really thought out  about what should go into a digital convergence OS. It's got an excellent built in browser and its interface is as good as anything Apple has, and because it is open source, it would allow multiple manufacturers to use it. Price point of an Android netbook? I'm thinking $300 or less.

There is one caveat here, and it would have to be addressed -- currently, there's no OpenOffice port to Android's Dalvik JVM, so Google would have to get a comparable productivity solution for Java working, run a local port of Google Docs, or port X.Org to Android to make the regular OpenOffice implementation work on either ARM or x86. The x86 version of Android is rumored to be publicly available by 1Q2009, so its theoretically possible we could see Android netbooks by the end of next year.

Do you want an iPod-based or Android-based Netbook? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Mobility, Android, Apple, Google, Hardware, iPhone, Networking, Operating Systems, Wi-Fi


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Apple Netbook

    Leopard booting netbooks already exist. One example
    would be the MSI Wind. It runs the existing version of Mac
    OS 10.5.5 without a problem and does it very well. Boot
    times run about 25 sec and wake and sleep are almost
    instantaneous. Everything works just as you'd expect a Mac
    to work and there's a very active community supporting
    the device. Then there's Sanyo, Toshiba, Asus, Acer, Dell,
    HP, Gigabyte, Epson, etc, etc. And most of their netbooks
    also can support the Mac OS with a little, very little,
    fiddling. Apple and Google may have missed the boat on
    this one.
    • Yup

      Clearly there is no obstruction to get Mac OS X running on netbooks. I think the bigger issue is does Apple want to be selling Mac OS X mini-laptops at a 300-400 dollar price point, or should they be looking to do something like a companion device that uses the iPhone version of OS X, with a proprietary hardware design and better chipset integration, and charge more for it?

      Palm tried this and failed with the Foleo:


      But this is not to say an Apple device with a similar target market would fail as well. My gut instinct says that it would succeed wildly.
      • Already been done

        Apple already had this market - until Jobs showed up. remember this?


        If Apple came out with a netbook, Jobs would have to admit that he was wrong about the Newton . . .
        Roger Ramjet
        • Not necessarily

          He could claim (quite correctly) that the hardware requirements for such a device to run the software people want or need were not in place 10 years ago.
          Michael Kelly
  • Not enough built-in PROFIT for ol' Steverino...

    ...he appeals to the "more expensive is always better" crowd, desiring to always march to the beat of a different drummer...
    Feldwebel Wolfenstool
    • People don't realize that the Netbook is the anti-thesis of Apple

      Apple doesn't do "low cost" that flies right in the face of their elitist culture.
    • He builds a $49 iPod

      How much profit do you think this greedy Steverino needs to

      If they aren't making one it's because only you geeky techies
      think there is a market for it. You like technology for the
      sake of technology not because of what humans can do with
      it, after all.
      • "geeky techies"

        Honestly. Do you think name calling will help make your point?
      • That doesn't compete with other $49 dollar MP3 players

        It's only a tease for the real iPods that cost $150. That POS doesn't even have a screen.
      • How much profit?

        A series done a few months ago by Ted Kopel focusing on the emerging China happened to receive a tour in the plant that manufactures iPods for Apple.

        The plant manager noted that they make 4 dollars an iPod, while Kopel pointed out that Apple makes 80 dollars an iPod.

        Is that enough to be considered a profit?
      • that describes me to a tee

        well done! That's definately me.
        But at the same time, I fail to see what the problem is with that, and Netbooks are cool - I have 3, along with my MacBooks, Mac Minis and iMacs, and iphones, Palm PDAs....well, you get the drift.
        What I'd really love is to put OSX on one of the netbooks I have - legally. Alas, that won't happen...but I can dream.
    • Self-righteous

      moralists tinged with a touch of marxist class envy are boring. Go play somewhere else.
  • Android yes,Apple no

    If Android make some sense on netbooks, netbooks seems not to fit Apple model.
    Netbooks are aimed at people needing a cheap,very portable notebook either as their main or secondary notebook.
    The key word here is cheap, a word which seems to deeply annoy Steve Jobs and to a lesser extent Apple fans.
    As a proof of what i said, he claimed in a close past that he doesn't know how to build a $500 which wouldn't be crap.
    The fact that Asus has been clearly and relatively easily able to do the opposite doesn't seem to disturb him.

    One interesting thing which seems to be underlined by your article is the inability of the majority of PC manufacturers to fully build vertical and functional solutions without the help of Microsoft and/or some additional work from their customers.
    And this even when they use the closest Linux distro to be a viable alternative to Windows, Ubuntu.
    It is pathetic.
    After that, it is not surprising that they are unable ,for most of them, to offer great end user experience with most of their PC.
    Asus is clearly one of the best PC manufacturer.
    If they make more efforts to improve their PC and especially their design, they have the potential to become a much more significant actor of the PC market.

      I don't mind paying the Apple premium if I'm getting a full
      powered laptop with a small footprint. I think that is the
      direction Apple will eventually go when they tap into the
      netbook market.

      I was the owner of a 12" G4 Powerbook for the last 4
      years, and I really appreciated it's size. I was holding out
      for a 12" MBP and was personally disappointed with the
      new aluminum block MBs and MBPs. So i bought a used
      white Macbook. It's bigger than I want, but at least it has

      If Apple brings back firewire to the Macbooks, I'll consider
      that. If they release a netbook sized (9 or 10 inch screen)
      laptop with firewire, i'll be in heaven.

      I understand the appeal of netbooks. I've been very
      tempted to buy one while I waited (in vain) for Apple to
      give me what I wanted. However, I really don't want more
      than one computer. Been there, done that.

      All of this is to say that you're right. The Android approach
      is better suited to true netbooks. Apple doesn't do cheap.
      Nothing wrong with that if you're getting value. I'd pay
      $1200 to $1500 if the Macbook i just acquired was under
      Marcos El Malo
      • No more firewire

        I wouldn't hold your breath for firewire, esp. with USB 3.0 coming in the next year or two.
        • I'm not holding my breat (nt)

          Marcos El Malo
    • wrong message, edited -NT

      • As you wish

  • Possible

    I doubt Apple would make a cheap netbook, as it could cannibalize their iPhone/iPod Touch line which has shown to be profitable. I doubt they would want to give up their high margins.

    An Android powered netbook could be possible though. I'm thinking a product like that would be some kind of smartphone/netbook hybrid.

    * Powered by a mobile CPU/GPU, such as an ARM processor.
    * Physical keyboard with a simplified layout.
    * 4inch - 9inch screen.
    * Built in file manager. Third party file managers are already starting to show up.
    * For larger screens, you may need a window manager to avoid running mobile apps fullscreen (could look weird). Perhaps allowing applications to run as widgets.
    * Wifi/3G of course.
    * GPS
    * Possibly built by Asus. They are going to discontinue EEE-PC models under 10", and that leaves a hole.

    The problem is the third party software available. There are no real desktop class apps for either platform, unless you count web applications.
  • RE: Why Apple and Google need to get into the Netbook business

    By doing so, apple can completely dominate/monoplize the netbook market as its OS is perfectly suited for such a machine, as it offers and exceeds the best of linux/xp/vista. But by doing so, it can also hurt sales of its higher end machines.