Opinion: The iPhone Is Apple’s Netbook

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A nice article by Mark Hachman at PCMag.com looks at Steve Jobs’ comments during the quarterly earnings conference call, and comes up with a promising line of thought.

Jobs, as we suspected and made plain here at the Cult a few days ago, doesn’t have anything against a netbook style Mac per se; he simply cannot see how Apple could produce one that wouldn’t suck. Or to put it another way:

“We don’t know how to make a $500 computer that’s not a piece of junk, and our DNA will not let us ship that.”

Jobs is waiting patiently to see what happens next to netbooks. I postulated last week that the Air would morph into a cheaper device (which I’ve no doubt it will), but perhaps I missed something more obvious: the iPhone will morph into a more flexible device. It’s already cheap (well, affordable at any rate).

There’s no hurry, at least not from Apple’s perspective. It is already making plenty of money from the products it has on offer right now, especially iPhones. And as John Gruber points out today, might soon be putting more focus on its phones than on any other part of the business – simply because that’s where the money is, and will continue to be for some time yet.

Which means Apple has time to watch how netbooks evolve, particularly how they evolve with regard to connectivity options, and this is an important factor, I think.

The first gen netbooks appeared with simple wifi connectivity, which is fine for a lot of people in a lot of circumstances. But the old fashioned “road warrior” (yuk, what a horrible phrase) needs connectivity from anywhere, and cannot depend on the availability of wifi networks. They need to be able to open their computer at a moment’s notice, and just get their online stuff done.

Right now, the only feasible way of managing that is via the telephony data network, 3G or otherwise.

So we’re now seeing new generation netbooks with 3G cards, and what’s interesting isn’t the tech inside, but the shop windows they’re appearing in. These netbooks are being sold from phone stores.

As the phone companies start selling contracts (and with them, heavily subsidised netbook computers), Apple will be watching to see just how much the whole arrangement sucks. Some people will end up with two contracts – one for their existing phone, one for their netbook. Some will have one contract, but still be using two devices, carrying around a separate phone handset.

So when Steve says: “We’ll wait and see how that nascent market evolves, and we have some pretty good ideas if it does,” – what ideas does he have in mind? Something that makes ownership of a tiny portable computer easier. The iPhone’s got the connectivity and the computing power to do what’s needed. All that it needs to get it competing with the netbooks is a keyboard, or something that makes the keyboard redundant.

Might Apple let us use normal Bluetooth keyboard with the iPhone? Possibly. Personally, I’d love that, but Apple doesn’t care about me. It wants to me products that really sing with cool, and I think that Steve Jobs would consider an iPhone propped up on a tabletop and controlled with a Bluetooth keyboard to be uncool.

  • Wilson

    I really, really want a 32Gb Touch as a PDA/music player that does occasional WiFi, but I am balking at the price. Why? Because for $50 less I can get a netbook with 8.9″ screen @ 1.6Ghz, 1024×600 backlit LED screen, 1Gb RAM, 80Gb drive, 802.11g and webcam, running Ubuntu. Yes, it’s bigger and has a clunkier UI, but it is far more flexible and ultimately useful (esp the keyboard!).

    And while there are always compromises in such devices, they are hardly ‘pieces of junk.’ That dismissive phrase is more like something Ballmer would say, hoping that people would not pay close attention to it.

    Apple surely could come out with a sub-$500 netbook but they simply choose not to.

    And don’t forget, Jobs personally tried offering OS X *for free* to the OLPC project.

    http://hardware.silicon.com/de

    Why would Apple want OS X on a $100 machine but deride $500 machines as “junk”? Clearly Apple ses the benefit of gaining marketshare with cheap machines, but they don’t want to compete (or cannot competitively do so) *themselves* in the cutthroat netbook market, which is being swamped by no-name devices at ever-lower prices.

    Apple wants to differentiate itself and preserve margins. It seems reluctant or unable to do so with current technology at curent prices.

    Finally, maybe ‘$500 junk computer’ is a clue — any bets on a $599 BigTouch+keyboard come January?

  • Sky

    BigTouch is a good description. I’m looking at the 32GB Touch too and have reached the same conclusion.

    The new Macbook is Apple’s closest offering for what I’m looking for. A 10.4″ version would be better, or an expanded Touch with bluetooth headset and keyboard support. Add a 3G plug-in expansion for field communication and it’s a winner.

  • fred

    netbooks a load of bs anyways. its a compromised design for those who can’t afford an iphone or a macbook air.
    over time the price of both will drop and netbooks will fade away.

About the author

Giles TurnbullGiles Turnbull is a freelance writer in England. He also writes for the Press Association and The Morning News. You can find out more at his website, and follow him on Twitter @gilest.

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