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Guesswork

(I used to earn my crust writing features for computer magazines. The urge still occasionally bites me. YMMV.)

"We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk" — Steve Jobs, October 2008, on the netbook market.

I'm a member of the cult of Mac by way of the UNIX lineage; back in the day I'd have given my left nut for a NeXT workstation, and the way Apple's platform (if not their consumer app lock-in) has evolved over the past decade has given me a much nicer alternative to the PC/Linux route. Apple are the BMW of the personal computing field; they've not only got snob and designer brand cachet, but they make well-engineered, solid machines that don't make you tear your hair out. (As long as you obey rule #1: never buy release 1.0 of a new model — the return rate will be crazy as they iron out the hardware snags.)

And so I'm rather interested in the rumours of a forthcoming Apple netbook or tablet device. And the rumours are coming in thick and fast right now. Apple are pathologically secretive about new releases — Steve Jobs has been in the business long enough to understand the Osborne Effect at a gut level — but it's hard to conceal a bulk order for display panels from an OEM, placed in March, with deliveries to commence in Q3/2009. Rumours of an Apple Tablet have been circulating for a couple of years. Very recently, reports of an Apple/Verizon tablet hook-up have begun to surface. Finally, there's the tragic case of Foxconn engineer Sun Danyong who committed suicide earlier this week after being accused of stealing or losing one of a batch of sixteen prototype "fourth generation iphones" that had been sent to Foxconn by Apple. Consider: the iPhone 3GS, announced about two months ago, was the third generation iPhone. This may be a new iPhone (the rumoured iPhone nano, or the rumoured no-GPS Chinese market iPhone), but ... sending lots of prototypes to the manufacturing subcontractor implies that production is due to start within a few months. Rather than a phone, could the missing prototype be a 3G-enabled Apple netbook or tablet?

Anyway, the rumour mill is grinding frantic and furious, and the rumours mesh with what I'm expecting, which is ...

We're not going to see a Mac Netbook. There are two reasons for this. First (and most important, from Apple's point of view) it would slaughter their profit margin by cannibalizing Macbook and iMac sales from underneath. Second, Steve Jobs was right: running OS/X on a $500 computer is a ghastly experience. I've done it. I've taken an Asus Eee 1000 (with a 40Gb SSD and 2Gb of RAM) and squished OS/X 10.5.5 onto it. It worked, after a fashion. Two minute boot times are not going to go down well in the consumer marketplace; nor are dialog boxes chopped off at the bottom by the netbook-standard 1024x600 pixel screen. (Yes, they could in principle push out a compact laptop with a higher resolution screen — but that's going to drive the price up.) The real problem is that netbooks are built around a low-power CPU and cheap embedded video chipset that simply aren't up to providing the user experience Apple customers have gotten used to. OS/X on a netbook crawls like Vista.

On the other hand, there are Signs and Portents. In the past couple of years, Apple has purchased chip design house P. A. Semi, presumably for their ARM architecture expertise. Apple is serious about ARM development, and use the Cortex A8 in the new iPhone 3GS; they've also bootstrapped a huge developer community and application store for the new OSX-on-ARM platform that is the iPhone and the iPod Touch.

My bet is that what we're going to see is what you might call an iPod Touch HD. It'll have a 10" multi-touch screen, probably 1280x800 pixels (a standard Apple resolution, rather than the Netbook spec 1024x600). It will run a version of the iPhone OS — OSX ported to run on ARM hardware rather than Intel, with a different user interface. There may well be haptic feedback for the on-screen keyboard (as featured on MIDs like the Viliv S5) , or some species of "real" keyboard — either a clamshell like a netbook, or a slider like a high-end mobile phone. (My money is on the on-screen keyboard with haptic feedback — it makes for a cleaner design.) It'll almost certainly have a 3G data connection, and some sources have been touting an $800 price point; others suggest it'll be subsidized to $300 when sold with a monthly mobile data contract.

What you can do with it: surf the web. Check your email. All the stuff you currently do on your iPhone, except use it as a mobile phone for voice calls. Hopefully if it doesn't have a built-in keyboard it'll come with a USB master controller so you can plug in a keyboard and mouse; and hopefully the iPhone app developers will take it to their heart and port everything in the store to run on it soon.

Rumour suggests that it may come with an ebook reader application and Apple are going to go into the ebook market in a big way, rivaling the Amazon Kindle. I think this is unlikely. Firstly, any epaper device on the market will slaughter a colour touchscreen tablet on battery life and outdoor visibility — which are more important in an ebook reader than the ability to watch movies or surf the web. Secondly, the ebook market is immature, short on revenue stream, and notoriously gnarly when you get down to the contract level; Apple's legal department would have all the fun of dealing with an industry even more stick-in-the-mud than the film biz, for an order of magnitude less reward. However, I can see the existing ebook apps for the iPhone platform (notably Ereader, Stanza, and Kindle) piling on board the new tablet in a split second. And? If you don't read out-doors, this will be the ebook reader to kill for.

But here's the killer app: gaming.

Gaming platforms are currently segregated into three categories. We have PCs (or Macs), we have dedicated consoles (Xbox 360/Playstation 3/Wii), and we have handhelds (Nintendo DSi/PSP family/iPhone). iPhone? Yes: the iPhone OS is seen as a major gaming platform, especially with the iPhone 3GS's improved positioning sensors and beefed-up graphics system. Games sell like hot cakes on the iTunes store; and it's not surprising, because on paper the iPhone/iTouch are on a par with, it not superior to, the high end offerings from Sony and Nintendo.

What we don't have is something that combines the portability of the handheld gaming platforms with the large, high-res screens supported by the consoles or PC world games. A 10" multitouch Apple tablet would probably be powerful enough and have a sufficiently large display to make a plausible client for MMOs such as EVE Online or World of Warcraft. It'll be portable as all hell — this thing will be about the size and weight of a trade paperback — and probably more powerful than any current handheld gaming platform. Forget the obvious market niche everyone expects it to fit in — that of Mobile Internet Devices such as the Nokia web tablets — this one could well carve out a niche of its own in a quite unexpected direction.

63 Comments

1:

Even an Atom CPU with the new NVidia ION will be hard pressed to keep up with WoW or EVE. You could log in, play the auction house and maybe do some mining in EVE, *possibly* one could level until level 58 in WoW. However, once the more detailed graphics of WoW:TBC kick in or when you get a teleport to Dalaran or undock in Jita in EVE or join a fleet, the netbook will assplode. Even with 2 Gb of RAM.

2:

Algars: did you read what I wrote?

Apple. Will. Not. Ship. A. Tablet. Based. On. The. Atom. Architecture.

(New client. New architecture. ARM Cortex A8 is not an Intel-compatible CPU. It is, however, vertically compatible with the existing iPhone CPUs and infrastructure.)

I'm speculating about new custom-written MMO clients for a different architecture. And possibly new MMOs using the iTablet as a platform. Even if this thing is a flop, it will likely out-sell every other MID on the market (they're a collective flop). And if it takes off, it defines a whole new device category -- ARM-based MID running OS/X.

3:

I could believe that Apple think that would work; I can't see that it will work. It looks like an answer looking for the right question to be honest. The expected battery life is another question mark.

My view is that portable really means pocket sized (when stored, hence Nintendo's DS) and a good few hours battery life - plus a design that can handle being rattled around with one's keys. I don't play games on my phone because I prefer the experience, I play them as I always have it with me. The kids play on the DS as it's small, cheap and it has wifi so they can play together. (Plus you can move Pokemon from the DS to the Wii and back again and believe me, that matters when you're 10.)

When at home then I can't see people using it in preference to a Wii/360/PS3 which they've probably already got - or their laptop ditto - and as for your hardcore PC gamers, they'll just laugh.

4:

Phil: the niche that will get this thing into your go-bag will be web/email, just as with the iPod Touch. The tweak on the iPod Touch will be a screen able to show Hi-def movies from the iTunes movie store -- the iTouch screen is a mere 320x480 pixels, same as the iPhone; the tablet needs to go to at least 720p if not 1080p if it's to be successful.

The games will come later, and they'll reflect a unique niche, intermediate between consoles and current handhelds.

5:

That all sounds plausible and desirable. For gaming, especially non-casual gaming, I think the big worry is going to be battery life. Maybe if they get the AC adapter thin enough.

(I have a Dell Mini 9 and it's a hoot but the AC adapter, though svelte by conventional notebook standards, is still too bulky especially with the UK plug. Something with the same volume as a conventional adpater or even greatrer but much thinner would be great. Especially if partnered with the flat UK plug concept. (http://www.pocket-lint.com/news/news.phtml/24991/1cm-thick-uk-plug-designed.phtml)

I'd also like it to be more open than the iPhone/iTouch but if it were cheap enough I'd jump anyway.

6:

I'm with Phil W, I'm afraid. The machine you describe isn't powerful enough to compete with desktops or laptops, but it's too bulky to be carried in a pocket. About the only thing it would be good for is browsing while in bed - but I wouldn't buy a machine just for that.

Now, I could imagine a really interesting gaming system based on a haptic touchscreen plus shock and motion sensors - use the whole device as a joystick by angling it, rotating it, lifting and lowering it; draw commands on the screen; shake the screen to move between views. But this isn't Apple's field of expertise and real games (as opposed to $1.99 iPhone apps) don't get written overnight, or even within a few months. Especially when the whole point of this is that it's a radically new system.

So, I think I'll going with the view that this is a tablet - an expensive tablet with a touch screen and beautiful flowing lines that justify its exciting price point. And it will be squeezed between the Scylla that is the iPhone and the Charybdis of the Macbook.

7:

plausible: yes. desireable: not for me. I'm still holding out for the OpenPandora (where apparently mass production of the boards is like a week off or something at this stage). _that_ will be my killer-device. Because it will fit in my pocket. _and_ it's get-your-own-hands-dirty Open Source. Which is what I want. I know other people don't, and that's fine by me, but I do want that sort of thing, it's what helps me to relax ..

8:

I have OS X running on my Advent as I have to say it's okay. But then I'm happy to live with it's limitations. As you say, it's not a consumer solution though.

As for the tablet, supporting a bluetooth keyboard would be a a nice added feature. Then you could choose between on-screen, for quick typing tasks and a proper external one for longer sessions. Given the size of the Apple's current keyboard, carrying one around wouldn't be a major hardship for those that really needed it.

Whatever Apple do, I'm sure it will surprise us all and have thousands of people queuing round the block to get their hands on one.

- Neil.

9:

Speaking as an owner of a 1st-gen iPod Touch, I think you have it nailed, Charlie. I use my own Touch for email/surfing where available in this wifi-poor country, but the most common use would be gaming, frankly (and writing, once I can get a keyboard to plug into the thing, at which point my netbook will be staying at home). I'd look at it with a lot of interest.

And, believe it or not, there are some decent dedicated ports of Nintendo/PSP titles (Assassin's Creed, Metal Gear Solid, Force Unleashed, etc) on the iPhone/iTouch, retailing around the €5-10€ mark. Some are ports of games for mobiles, but more are much better. And looking at the gaming press, there seems to be a growing acceptance of the iPhone/Touch as a Nintendo/PSP-matching game platform in its own right.

So, a platform like the one Charlie describes will simply be added to the list of platform-dev requirements from the game publishers, assuming it gets the sales traction. In fact, if they manage a connector for linking to HDMI port (with Apple-dedicated Bluetooth dongle costing extra, natch) and Bluetooth controllers/pads, you have a portable AND console multimedia platform all in one. Which would increase my interest exponentially...

Phil @3 - Battery life will be a thorny question, just as it is with current netbooks/gaming handhelds, but Apple has a knack of building successful answers to non-existent questions (like "Want to carry your whole music collection around in your pocket in a $300 dollar device?")

10:

Charlie @4

But I already have email and a browser on my phone ... if I want a big screen I go home.

Clearly I'm not the target audience, and no doubt there will be enough Macheads out there to buy the first batch, but I still can't see how it could grab the mass market like (say) the iPhone or iPod did. Mind you, Jobs earns a lot more then I do so he must be doing something right.

11:

I'm running 10.5.7 on my eeePC901 go. It boots in 1:10. I love it to pieces, it's small, has 3G builtin. It's fast enough to playback h264 (DVB-T recordings transcoded), runtime is about 4 hours since I exchanged the SSD for a harddisk.
OSX runs really fine on it, way more responsive than I expected.
I even installed glassfish etc. on it to do development. I'm still amazed at the power of this tiny device, I do remember times when it would have been considered server grade performance.

Though I was considering buying a MacBook Air (we already have 1 Mini, 2MBPro and one MBAir) I went for the eeeMac because it's so tiny and - not to forget - cheap. Apple definitively lost a sale here. Though licensewise they didn't, of course!

I guess you had some compatibility issues because of the unsupported hardware.

12:

spot on.
Even the current iphone is the buzz of the gaming enthusiast press (as far as portable gaming goes). Also, Sony's most recent design of the PSP, the PSP-GO has been designed to compete directly with the iphone. This even comes out in their PR efforts, when they're asked about the seemingly huge $250 price tag. They say:

Oh, this isn't competing against the DS. It's more like the iphone.

13:

"Apple are going to go into the ebook market in a big way"

"“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

http://www.businessinsider.com/2008/1/apples-jobs-disses-amazons-kindle

14:

While it will be exciting to see what Apple will do, I think they're under estimating the netbook market. Or more specifically, the netbook form-factor.

Part of the limitations placed on the netbook are from Microsoft rather than price. Vista is too bloated to put on it, so they resurrected XP but with conditions (to prevent XP from cannibalizing Vista). If you make a Linux netbook there's no restrictions, but few want to make separate hardware for a less popular OS.

What people want, which has been apparent since OLPC, is a lightweight, cheap, and long lasting device with a screen you can actually see if you're over 30 and a keyboard that you don't have to relearn. Something under 3lbs, with 4+ hours of battery, and enough power to surf the web, run Flash apps, and watch video.

And in the case of Apple, I think price is negotiable. Without the restrictions MS has put on other manufacturers they could stick whatever processor and memory configuration they want in there. And using the iPhone OS would actually be a pretty good idea, especially if the apps worked on it too. You'd need to make sure there was a good office suite app that worked with the device, and that video played well, but other than that let developers do the work.

As for price, in the US netbooks seem to do well around $300-$350. Above that there are low end notebooks for $500 but they're heavy and have small batteries. Apple, of course, is a bit more expensive. Looking at their web store, the 13 inch Macbook retails for $999. The Touch is $229, and the iPhone as low as $99 with a 2-year contract.

So I think there's definitely room for an Apple using the netbook format, if not the standard netbook components. I could see a 10" Apple "netbook" selling for around $499-$599. There are plenty of people who'd pay an extra $200 for a netbook with the Apple logo on it, even if Windows 7 spurs beefed up standard netbooks next year.

15:

#Chris @13

I refer you to this tidbit from Mr Jobs in mid-2004. He plays a long game, does that man...

16:

Sorry, but NOT impressed.
Jobs, and Apple are just as nasty to deal with as MicroShaft - they just conceal it better.
Their initial approach "we've built the worlds' BEST PC, and it won't EVER need improvement, and we are going to charge you an arm-&-a-leg for it." did not go down well with me.
As for describing it as the "BMW" of the computing world, well, that doesn't impress me either.
However, all that said, some SERIOUS competition in the Notebook/phone/tablet crossover worlds would be a very good thing.
Interesting times.

17:

AndrewG: So I think there's definitely room for an Apple using the netbook format, if not the standard netbook components. I could see a 10" Apple "netbook" selling for around $499-$599. There are plenty of people who'd pay an extra $200 for a netbook with the Apple logo on it, even if Windows 7 spurs beefed up standard netbooks next year.

Won't happen, unless they can bring out a netbook running the iPhone/iTouch OS rather than OS/X Classic. Reason: your $500-600 netbook will eat half the sales of the $1600-2000 Macbook Air while delivering only the same percentage margin. Apple will not do anything that they see as undermining the sales of their existing cash cows.

(BTW, you may not have noticed this, but the price of the Macbook Air has come down about 40% since launch. I suspect there's room for Apple to shave the BOM on the Airbook almost indefinitely, until it's a de facto 13" Netbook with a price premium for the shiny unibody. It hits the Netbook target bang on for email/light web surfing/light office work combined with weight and portability, while adding a full-sized keyboard and screen; the cost is, of course, the premium price. But if you've looked at the other premium notebooks lately, such as the Dell Adamo -- the Airbook is way ahead in terms of value for money compared to the other snob brands, and is getting progressively cheaper. I wouldn't rule out an "Airbook Mini" in a year or two, just to mop up the left-overs between the tablet and the bottom of the Macbook range -- but not yet.)

18:

Interesting idea of a tablet for gaming. No interest to me, but possibly my son.

I personally just don't see how a relatively expensive Apple tablet that is going to be somewhat slow, competing in the games market. I note that when my son plays non-mobile games, he does so with his friends using multiple consoles and a large tv. Otherwise he seems OK with the small screen of cheap mobile players, like the PSP.

I think the concept of a web tablet with good battery life and connectivity is the big market - exactly what Arrington is targeting with his device:

http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/06/03/crunchpad-the-launch-prototype/


He certainly espouses the desires that I have - mobile web browsing, reading and web applications like email, in a light, easy to use form factor. Whether this makes sense as a mobile device, I'm not sure, but I think he is going in the right direction for these devices. More importantly, it is going to be open, which is not true of a tablet that runs the iPhone OS.


19:

I dunno. The ergonomics seem problematic to me. We've already got 'in your pocket/in your hand', 'on your desk', and 'on your lap/on the table' as established form factors-- netbooks and tablets are too big for the first category, too weak for the second category and the screen is in the wrong place for the third category. I just don't see it.

20:

EVE online minimum specs for running on Macs:

"* Supported hardware is MacBook Pro laptops, Mac Pro machines and iMacs. All these machines have to meet the following minimum requirements below:
* CPU: Intel based computer with CPU speed equal or greater than 1.8GHz
* OS: OS X 10.5.6 or later.
* Video: ATI X1600 or NVIDIA GeForce 7300 GT or higher with 128 MB of Video RAM
* RAM: 1024 MB or more
* HD space: 6.0 GB
* Network: 56k or better Internet connection"

It won't run on an ARM based processor there's barely a minimum support on Macs so don't expect them to stretch their necks for a tablet mac and on a 10" screen it'll be virtually unplayable. I can't see it being able to play any other MMO either. There are rumours of PS3 and 360 versions but I'm not holding my breath. I'll ask one of the mac version devs in October when I'm in Reykjavik.

21:
Algars: did you read what I wrote? Apple. Will. Not. Ship. A. Tablet. Based. On. The. Atom. Architecture.

Ah, but that's not what you wrote, it was that Apple wouldn't release a Netbook. They will, eventually. It's just that by that point (and they're heading in that direction already), there won't be much difference between a laptop and a netbook. Simple fact is that the netbook is the current hot thing in the market, outstripping even smartphones, and Apple can't ignore it, especially when inbuilt mobile broadband takes off the way inbuilt wifi did, bolstered by either 4G or LTE or whatever wins that fight. Convergence, baby...

22:

Mark: did you miss me banging on about P. A. Semi and ARM Cortex?

Hint: Netbook describes a specific hardware reference architecture pumped out by Intel.

23:

HDMI out on an Apple tablet and I'm sold. Instant. Game. Console. Power consumption is the real Intel (and by association MS and PC) killer, which is why Apple went with ARM for mobile apps. As long as netbooks, tablets, or whatever are using inefficient x86 chips Apple will continually outflank them in the long run. That is unless Mr. Fusion comes out in pocket form and asbestos pants come into fashion.

24:

If Apple really dared to Think Different...

This would cost a lot to build and integrate and it would be pricey to buy but it's eminently possible with today's tech.

Netbook or Super iTouch... why not both? Put an ARM low-power CPU AND an Atom or equivalent x86-family CPU into the same chassis, driving the same peripherals (Bluetooth, 3G modem, WiFi, touchscreen and graphics controller), sharing an SSD and battery pack. The Atom will run a tweaked version of OS/X and all that implies at the cost of limited battery life. At the touch of a control the OS/X hardware goes to sleep and the ARM takes over to make it a large-screen iTouch with more limited capabilities (no PhotoShop) but a much longer battery life.

Media playback? iTouch. Monster spreadsheets? OS/X. Calendaring apps? iTouch. Java-heavy browsing? OS/X, back and forth as the user needs change but one piece of hardware, one item to lug around.

Cost? Got to be in the thousand-buck region, probably more. It would not be quite as slim as an existing iTouch but not much thicker either. The key is that there is nothing on the market quite like it and that's where Apple can make the Difference they're so proud to boast of.

25:

Apple has always been strong with students and artists. A good text book system (like a quicker way to browse through pages)and a powerful but low learning curve paint/sketch program would seem like a great reason to buy a I-Tablet. Games would be icing on the cake!

26:

This just in:

Apple nabs 91% of premium computer market in June (via Ars Technica). (That 91% figure relates to personal computers costing over $1000.)

To quote: "Based on NPD's data, the ASP of a Windows laptop was $520 -- $569 if netbooks are excluded. The ASP of a Mac laptop is $1,400. Similar trends hold for desktops as well -- the ASP of a Windows-based desktop PC in June was $489, while the ASP for a Mac was $1,398."

Let me repeat what I said up-thread: Apple will not do anything that will slaughter their profit margin by cannibalizing Macbook and iMac sales from underneath. Or even diverting sales from the iPhone. They're one of the most single-mindedly profit-focussed corporations in the computer biz, and that's saying something. Their revenue is only about half the size of Microsoft's, but profit as a percentage of turnover is in the same ball-park -- and for a niche player (around 11% of the mrket in the USA in laptops -- lower in desktops) to have that kind of grip on the high end is just remarkable.

27:

We wont see a netbook from Apple anytime soon.
Tablet might be another thing, there are still ppl waiting for the next Newton.
Also with good handwriting recognition and software support this will rock the rich kids back-to-school market. Not as a replacement for their MacBook, but complementing for taking notes in lectures.

If you are looking for a small-formfactor notebook based on ARM, you have to look elsewhere.
There is this small company called Google, who announced an OS targeted at the so called netbook market. I dont give a whatever for their OS - preinstalled crap gets wiped as first action anyway - but they also said that they would partner with manufacturers for hardware to run it on i386 and ARM.
Might get some serious battery lifetime out of those. *fingers crossed*

Still waiting for our flexible multi-interface PDAs that are recharged by body-wasteheat...

28:

Charlie @ 26: There's a simple reason Apple have 91% of that $1000+ personal computer market; there's nothing hardware-wise in a desktop or laptop that makes any of them worth that much these days. It's like saying Bugatti have 91% of the $500,000+ car market sewn up, and that's with the Bugattis rolling off the same production line as Ford Focuses and using the same parts.

As for cutting into their own existing markets, that's what Apple does all the time. The Macbook Air pissed over lower-end Macbook sales even though it was gutless and cost more because it was, oh be still my beating heart! *thinner* than the existing Macbooks. They announced the desktop Intel boxes a year before they stopped selling the G5s, gutting the retailers who had storerooms full of nigh-unsaleable desktop kit. Then again they know their marks and their markets and they know that the Shiny! will sell, whatever it is because it's got an Apple logo on it.

Kreskin predicts: no matter what they release, you will buy one no matter the price. Your Mark 1 version will break within six months and it spend at least a week getting repaired. It may break again. It may be recalled. The BOP and manufacturing costs breakdown that Ars Technica does on a deboxed article will come in under 30% of the list price. There will be no discounts off list price. Mark my words.

29:

I'm not a gamer, so I can't comment on this form factor as a gaming platform.

I don't see how Apple could prevent it being used as an e-book reader. My iPhone is way too small for reading for long periods (although I have done it).

I just randomly sampled some books in my library, hardback and trade paper. They ran about 10" to 11" diagonally. And, 10" is also a nice size for email and browsing.

If done properly, this could easily usurp all other e-readers. Especially with internet access and bluetooth built in. Admittedly, it's not e-paper, but, if well designed, it could be a more than adequate reading platform.

This could be another iPod breakthrough. Prior to the iPod, no one seemed to be able to make a breakout digital music player. Up 'til now no one has been able to make a breakout tablet.

Even though I'm not an Apple fan boy, their sense of design, functionality and their appraisal of the market's readiness for a product, have been spot on.

We shall see.

30:

For those pointing out that *existing* WoW/EVE won't run on the specifications we're considering, this is true -- however, they would almost certainly write device-specific clients for such a device. I imagine initially they would be walled-garden but I doubt it would be long until a company dared bridge a phone client world with the "grown up" world.

31:

I wonder if apple might use the Pixel Qi display. They're the commercialization of the OLPC screen, which give you high refresh rate, low power consumption, and are fully readable in direct sunlight (if you give up colour).

32:

Fisrtly, you hit the nail on the head describing Apple as the BMW of the personal computer world. I'll say no more (suffice it to say, I'm not a Mac fan), other than that I wouldn't consider purchasing a BMW.

Secondly, and the real reason I'm commenting, your mention of the Osborne Effect led me to rediscover my Dad's second personal computer (his first was a ZX81), that he used to run his business on for at least a decade - yep, the Osborne 1. He eventually replaced it with an Apricot PC (a 286? probably...) sometime in the early 90s. We also had a Betamax VCR.

Moral of that story: if my Dad ever purchases some technology, avoid it, it's likely to go bust or become obsolete rather too quickly.

33:

Macs are nice and shiny as far as design goes, but the person I know who has a laptop (and loves it, for whatever reason) has had multiple hard drive problems, requiring much time in the shop, while it was still under warranty. (I believe they finally replaced the drive. After the second or third failure.)
That's not a computer I want.

34:

The Netbook idea is being spoiled by Microsoft. Intel is a problem too--I've seen low end machines with other CPU architectures, running Linux--but you're not dependent on a single supplier in the same way.

I've a few horror stories about the support for the Linux distro Asus put on the Eee. There are good alternatives, which wouldn't be there if they'd used a different CPU family.

Apple has the status in the market to get away with non-Intel CPUs (AMD are, in this context, Intel), and some sort of tablet/Super-iPhone is something that could steal part of the netbook market.

But be wary of mobile broadband. 3G coverage in the UK is worse than the mobile phone companies would like you to think, and with the economic mess, they're reluctant to spend money on infrastructure.

The iPhone is still a phone, with the infrastructure in place. I'm not sure if this hypothetical beast would be worth a contract-subsidised deal for mobile broadband. I'd rather be able to slip in a SIM card for the network that works where I am.

35:

RE: Apple tablets and gaming: It wouldn't matter if such an Apple tablet could support gaming; Apple wouldn't support a gaming initiative for it.

I say this as someone who has been a game developer for over 20 years and watched as Apple went from being the best at supporting game developers to the worst by 1988; they have been unchallenged for last place ever since.

What my friends on the inside have told me in the past is that Jobs just doesn't care about gaming and that that attitude flows downhill into executive and middle management. There will always be a small department to support game developers and it will never get what it needs to grow the market. We've seen this over and over again with the company.

And with Apple PCs now being such a relatively small share of the market compared to IBM-compats, the Mac is almost always an afterthought for development. Which is a damn shame, because Apple makes some great machines.

36:

To Reader's Digest your post, Charlie, you're saying Apple are aiming at the Nintendo market (roughly approximated as non hard-core gamers)? (correct me if I've taken a step too far). Huge huge challenge. Sony already have the over...^H^H^H^H premium priced product in hand-held gaming (PSP) sector, nintendo has the leading product range in that area. Hmmm. What's left? Console? Suddenly you're up against Ninentdo, Sony and Microsoft all on nth generation product.

Where are you proposing Apple enter the market? Sub-Nintendo DS? Sub-Wii?

I don't see Apple being able to compete in against those titans in gaming UNLESS they having something as revolutionary as the... well, Nintendo Revolution (Wii)?

I'm not saying you're prediction is impossible, not at all, but it just seems improbable. Apple's only advantages that I see are brand and their appstore. Is that enough? Using *fun* as core marketing let Nintendo surprise everyone with the Wii.

How can you top fun?

37:

While I can believe that you can't build a good notebook for $500, you can build a great desktop for that money. While Ubuntu 8.04 may be lighter weight than Mac OS X, I run applications like static analysis and other development tools that are heavier weight than popular applications.

I found most components on sale last December-January.

Antec Sonata III case + PSU
GIGABYTE GA-MA78GM-S2HP motherboard
AMD Athlon 64 X2 6000 3.1GHz
CORSAIR 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2 800
Western Digital Caviar Green 1TB HD

38:

Charlie @ 17:

While there will be some cannibalization of sales, I think the netbook market is a market with only a little overlap that Apple isn't touching. People buying netbooks aren't the people who would buy a Macbook Air.

At least in the US, it seems to mostly be people who already have a computer -- a desktop or a large laptop -- who want a cheap and portable second computer. These are people who (like myself) aren't going to pay $1000 for a second computer.

At the same time, phones like the iPhone, G1, various Blackberrys, etc are basically small pocket sized computers with a continuous connection. But they're limited by size - no matter how much processing power they have, you can't make them bigger without making them less useful as phones.

Where netbooks are useful are with students, business people, parents -- people who want something light but don't want to spend much money. That's what I'm looking for myself -- a cheap netbook I can take notes with in class, as well as meeting minutes at work. For email and web browsing a phone is fine.

As for operating systems -- I think Apple would be smart to use the iPhone's OS as you suggest. It would likely get better performance for starters -- they could possibly even use the same CPU as they do in the iPhone. And they have an excellent delivery system for selling applications and having 3rd parties develop them. One of the complaints about Macs has always been the lack of software, but the App store solves that problem.

I think the Netbook market is really going to expand over the next couple years. We know that Windows 7 will soon be the standard, and there's a good chance MS will relax it's requirements on hardware that's allowed in Netbook. Then there's Google's mysterious Chrome OS, which supposedly will run on ARM chips as well as x86.

39:

steveg @36: you haven't looked in the iTunes app store lately, have you? It's heaving with games. Earlier this year I happened to be at a conference for game company managers -- everyone was walking around in a zombie-like stupor groaning "iphone, iiiiiphone ..."

It's about casual gaming, basically. Hardcore is a rather different market.

Jessica @35: iphone OSX != desktop OSX in that respect. It's interesting to note that in the past two or three keynotes, Apple's presenters (including Steve Jobs) have made a big thing out of demoing games.

Andrew G: you're right as far as it goes about Netbooks. I've got a gut feeling, however, that what Apple are planning isn't about Netbooks: it's about finding a new way to leverage profits for Apple by expanding the existing Apple ecosystem.

40:

Why not go the other direction? A tablet in the $1200-1500 range, with the computing power of a full laptop. That is precisely my ideal system; I see no reason Mac couldn't make it.

The question, of course, is who would want it. The reasons I want the tablet interface are (1) I go to a lot of lectures and meetings where I want to take notes, often including diagrams and charts. Doing that on a keyboard is painful; filing years of paper notes is even worse. (2) I often have to prepare presentations while traveling and I'd love to be able to just sketch an image. I'd imagine a third target would be people who have to do a lot of editing, and want to mark up PDF's with handwritten marks.

Of course, most people don't need any of this. But those people are going to get netbooks. I'd think that, among people who want a better laptop, there are enough who would prefer the tablet interface to make this a reasonable Mac market.

41:

One important thing to keep in mind: The Casual Gaming segment online has been growing like gang-busters and making rafts of money. Sure, those of us who play WoW or Eve are paying more on a recurring monthly basis to play than the folks who are playing Scrabble and Puzzle Pirates... but there an awful lot of people playing Scrabble and Puzzle Pirates, and it's pretty clear that those markets are still expanding at a rate limited only by hardware adoption.

42:

DavidS, sounds like you're talking about an Axiotron Modbook. Yes, if you need an Apple tablet and are willing to pay a premium over the cost of a Mac, you can have one today. (Apple tolerate Axiotron, unlike the Hackintosh vendors, because Axiotron buy Macbooks and turn them into Modbooks, taking on the warranty/support issues for themselves. See also "not cannibalizing the Mac market".)

Steve Jobs has a well-known aversion to what he calls "the scribble thing" -- pen input. I gather that's why he killed the Newton, and why the iPhone OS is multi-touch. No pen needed.

Richard T: Yes, that's my understanding -- the iPhone casual gaming sector is gigantic. Yes, they sell for $2-5 rather than the $30-50 for a Nintendo cartridge; but where a DS owner might buy one or two games and play them to death, the iPhone owners buy a new one every week (the average life of a game on an iPhone is something like 6 days, although some of them -- Bejewelled, for example -- stick around for longer).

43:

I think you're spot on about it needing a '3rd OS' (or if we include the Apple TV as an OS X device with a different UI a 4th OS) - I presume this is actually where a lot of the time is being spent - your casual pundit thinks 'just scale up the iPhone OS' rather than 'what would a new form enable'.

Scale up the form and you're getting towards something that might replace a notebook (I've had PDAs in the past, and currently an iPod touch) - a tablet PC is too bulky, but iPod slim and A5 size and you're entering a new category.

With the battery technology they're getting into their laptops now, and a bespoke ARM CPU, an 8-hour battery may be realistic (and how expensive are 10" OLED screens).
DavidS - I suspect this should be good enough for most of your requirements.

Plus there are loads of niche markets looking for a device like that (the ones that have already embraced tablets and PDAs but found the experience - so far - not to live up to the technology). Many of those firms already seem to be switching towards iPod Touch and iPhone as a platform, but I presume that in the medical market a larger screen would be good. The key there is that it's a consumer device that just happens to have the capabilities they need vs a very expensive niche device (tablets so far).

44:

Two unknowns multiplied together = GIGO.
(1) “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year."
(2) Breakthrough e-book beyond the Kindle, perhaps by Apple.

As to (1), I've seen significantly different figures from different sources. The order of magnitude is right. Roughly half of American homes have one or zero books (the one typically a Bible or Koran or the like). What is the real shape of the curve? I have 5,000+ books, and so do some of my friends. What is the "real" literacy rate in the USA? Officially (government-cooked for Education Politics) figures exceed 90%. Some polls (one by Harvard in particular) suggest closer to 50%.

As to (2), we'll probably know it when we see it. What are the odds in any given year that the breakthrough's happened? Was the Kindle one?

Multiply these unknowns, where each is blurred by competing entities with axes to grind. Result? At best, poor signal-to-noice. At worst (if there's feedback), Chaos.

45:

Off topic, but should be interesting to Charlie and fans of his work:

I've posted a review of "Palimpsest", the short novel from the "Wireless" collection. URL is //rumblingsfromthespeaker.blogspot.com

I tried posting that as a link yesterday, and the post is still stuck in moderation; I'm hoping the link detector won't spot this one.

46:

Phones don't have a continuous connection; they have a permanent option to dial-up whilst the radio environment is reasonable. They have a more permanent option to receive or make voice, SMS, or USSD calls, which can make use of the GSM radiopaging channel to start the transfer rather than constantly having a GPRS or higher connection standing by with horrible results for battery life and switch requirements.

47:

Interesting piece on Ars about KDEs Netbook remix. It's something like that, except more, that I'm expecting - XP on netbooks feels too small and fiddly as is, and will be even less suited for Touch control. I doubt standard OS X fairs a lot better (some gains with menus and icons being easier to hit).

Sneddon - unfortunately, your Bugatti comparison is incorrect, in that it's not a case of 'the same components'. No dispute - Apple have higher margins and their machines (except in some very rare cases) are more expensive, but on like-for-like specs the gap hovers between 10-15%.

The crucial flaw in the comparison is that most of the other players have machines in the same specification class as Apple, just as Ford and GM have brands and vehicles playing in the same class as BMW - so basically, this is like saying that BMW have completely taken over the high-end car market from competitors.

Bugatti are in a different market altogether - luxury - which does exist in PCs.

Now having a £500 car and a £900 laptop I feel well-placed to discuss this. My requirement with a car is to get from A-B, as I don't drive long distances often, and when I do I often hire a better car - but I am under no delusion whatsoever that my car is well-designed or well-made.

I can wholly understand how for many people the same applies to a computer (they want something cheap to use the Internet).

Lastly, even comparing machines with the same components, I find there is much to like with the Mac, and it is less a single big feature, than that same attention to detail and material that is typical of German firms - the magnetic latch lid and power connector, implementation of S3 sleep even on bottom end machines, years ago, for instant-on behaviour, which makes picking up, opening up, and checking Google a trivial task. This is achievable on some Dell machines but not on by default, which says a lot about the difference between the two firms.

48:

#Martin @15

"What do I care about my chitchat from yesterday?" - Konrad Adenauer
So there's still hope for my two-screened, Pixel-Qi-Display Apple ebook :-)

49:

All this has got me thinking about a cross between MS Surface and a WII balance board. Which seems well within the bounds of technical possibility.

50:

Here's an article on book reading in the US:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/21/AR2007082101045.html

About 27% haven't read a book at all in the past year. However, when you exclude that group, those who do read books read an average of 7 a year. And those who don't read tend to be older an poorer so aren't a target market for expensive electronic devices anyway.

I think the focus on books misses a major market, however -- periodical readers. A ton of people who don't read books do read magazines. If you could get a full color ebook reader with a larger screen I think there could be a huge market for selling periodical subscriptions.

The other thing that makes periodicals a nice fit is that they typically aren't something people want to keep, like books are. Once you've read it, you probably won't want it again a year later. Professional journals could be an exception, but that's a slightly different business model.

And for publishers, they'd save a ton of money on printing and mailing costs, and on returns from retailers.

51:

http://pixelqi.com/products

For the info on the commercialized OLPC screen tech. Shipping in the right time frame, and it's not like there is anything specialized about the line you produce them on, but it would help the battery life issue, and fix the full sun problem.

52:

Charlie@39: From your mouth to Jobs' ear. We developers have been through this bait and switch on Apple 'games support' a number of times before, :-). I'll believe it when I see it.

Let me note that the iPhone crew did it correctly, IMO; get the SDK and other support out the door and let the developers decide what they need. That is a lot easier - relatively - at the iPhone device level than it is at the PC/Tablet level; fewer hooks and calls, simpler user interfaces to deal with.

We're still talking different markets; the hand-held market is quite a bit different that the PC or Tablet markets. It is also a lot easier and quicker to get an app out on the iPhone; days or weeks on the iPhone versus many months to 4 years for something on a PC, including a potential Apple Tablet.

53:

This just in -- The Register is reporting sources as saying the launch is being brought forward to September and Apple's regular annual iPod-related slot. There's some big announcement involving multiple record companies and interactive content via iTunes, and the iTablet is apparently going to be 3G WWAN (but not voice) capable.

54:

@50 I think there might be a sweet spot somewhere here.

Something a bit more interactive than a standard web site, delivered as an iPhone app via the app store, perhaps with an extension for episodic/subscription delivery ala podcasts, with the information content of a periodical, to a market that already seems to be quite prepared to pay for content (i.e app store customers), at a 5-10$ price point. Handled well, this could be what the print media sector is desperate for.

55:

With the slim form factor I've seen pictured, this device could change my life if it had a stylus, handwriting recognition, and a note-taking app similar to OneNote.

Everyone in my office carries into every meeting some writing device and a stack of pressed pulp from dead trees. A note-taking machine that isn't as big/bulky/hot/hungry as Windows tablets, doesn't require you to type during meetings, and can sync with non-Apple platforms (e.g. Evernote) would finally eat into the paper notebook turf.

56:

RickK: It won't have a stylus. See also "scribble thing, Steve Jobs, got his hate on".

However I'm willing to guess it'll have the iPhone on-screen keyboard ... sized for touch-typing in landscape, with haptic feedback (i.e. click/vibration when a keystroke is registered so you can feel when you've mistyped). Also: finger-doodling for images/paint/notes.

iPhone OS already has an EverNote client. I expect the existing port of Documents-to-Go to rock on a tablet that big, once they recompile it for the new platform.

I think this one may abandon the dock connector; it won't fit any existing iPod dock without major surgery, and it's enough like a "real" computer that people will be expecting full USB master ports -- possibly USB OTG so that it can flip from master (for mouse/keyboard) to slave (when you plug it into your desktop Mac for hotsync).

What I'd like to see (but don't expect):

* A working Bluetooth HID stack for mice/keyboards/headsets.

* Micro-USB ports (the new standard for cellphone charging in Europe, as well as the new standard for, well, tiny USB connectors).

* A more "open" version of the OS -- e.g. local file storage, a terminal client with UNIX command-line access. (In my dreams.)

* SD or micro-SD card slot(s). (That would ruin its sleek lines. Unlikely to appeal to Steve.)

* A kick-stand, like the Nokia N800 and N810 web tablets. (Possible but unlikely: Steve doesn't like fiddly stuff with hinges that break. See also iBook 1.0.)

* Graffiti! (Not in a million years!)

57:

Apple Tablet may be launched this Christmas or possibly as early as September. I hope this will be another great rally for apple earnings. I will buy one of this for sure. The iphone started to be too little to stay all the day looking things. I am a great fan of apple product so started collecting all the information (more than 200 sites) about Apple Tablet(News, Videos, Pics, Pre reviews, Rumors etc.,). If you are interested take a look at the below link
http://markthispage.blogspot.com/2009/07/apple-tablet-large-iphone-or-ipod-touch.html

58:

Buy a Mac, join a cult. Read "In the beginning was the command line."

59:

Patrick: it's not a cult, it's the One True Religion.

60:

I mostly concur. However, I don't think gaming is the killer app. It could be the icing on the cake (as it already is for the iPhone and iPod Touch), but there needs to be a cake. People aren't going to pay $500+ for a gaming system. They wouldn't pay it for the PS3, which is an excellent blu-ray player and media center, in addition to being a powerful gaming system. And I don't think many people are going to want to pay $200-300 dollars extra just for a bigger screen on an iPod Touch. Apple needs to bring something else to the table. And it has to do it without cannibalizing iPhone or MacBook sales. My guess would be some form of productivity applications, perhaps something like iWork with gestures. If it has Keynote and VGA video output, it would be very appealing to people who do presentations. Web conferencing capability would also be very appealing.

I don't think it will have a stylus as standard input device. Apple's been there, done that. They've put a lot of effort into touch technology, and stylus and touch do not go together well. Probably not a keyboard either, although I'd hope it would accept bluetooth keyboards.

I agree that it will not be pitched primarily a book reader, for the reasons you describe, although I'm sure that books will be available. There is one area that the Kindle couldn't match, however: it would be a very appealing comic book reader if Apple were to partner with Marvel and/or DC to offer touch-enabled digital comics. There are already some nice comic reader application for the Touch and iPhone.

I would guess that it will be another closed system like the iPhone and Touch as far as software is concerned, with software distributed through iTunes, and Apple acting as gatekeeper.. That would help to keep it from competing directly with Apple's general purpose computer line.

61:

I can think of another market segment for a device like this: elderly or mildly technophobic people who want Internet access without having to have a computer (of course it will /be/ a computer, but they won't think of it as such). I think this could be ideal for my father: he turns 80 this year and wants to go online. I got him a Dell Mini 9 running Ubuntu and a 3G dongle but he's not getting on with it - too complex a UI for him. He's played with my iPhone though, and "got" the Touch UI quickly but found the screen too small. So long as there's enough accessibility options for large type and high contrast, this might very well be exactly right for him.

62:

#34
How is Microsoft spoiling the Netbook idea? Except for the name, they were promoting it long ago in the 90s. Or has everyone forgotten the Jupiter spec for the WinCE platform? HP had the most well known example in their Jornada line. The formula didn't work then because wireless hadn't become widespread yet and the price point, although lower than laptops of the era, was still far too high for the casual temptation the Netbook presents.

The one thing Microsoft got wrong was not seeing the Netbooks coming around again and assuming a higher spec for entry systems, thus Vista. But Windows 7 has shown that Vista just needed to cook a bit more to be more usable on lesser hardware specs. I've used Win7 effectively on systems that would crawl under Vista, even though other than having a small base app set (all of which are now downloadable in superior versions) it has a better feature set than Vista. They almost certainly could have made Vista behave as well if they'd had the incentive at the time due to market trends.

That has always been the problem of commercial software. It doesn't always make sense to pursue the optimal code base if the price of better hardware will soon be less than your minimum requirement set when you launched the first version. Also, it's hard to get the general consumer to appreciate the win of a faster, smaller code base with no added features. Windows 7 is one of the biggest reversal of that longstanding condition.

Charlie, I think your numbers are off a bit. US $500-ish is far too much money for a netbook class machine. I can get a quite decent full laptop for that amount. (And it'll run MacOS just fine.) To give you an idea: http://www.frys-electronics-ads.com/

A netbook significantly over $300 is not deserving of the name. We've had expensive ultra-lite notebooks for almost as long as there has been notebooks. (I still have a first generation Toshiba Libretto running Win95 tucked away. Got some real work done on it back in the day.) Cost is a huge part of the netbook market phenomenon. Without the candy by the checkout stand price point it's just another laptop model in the store.

63:

epobirs: MS have insisted on a crippled spec for netbooks that will be allowed to run Windows XP -- max 1Gb of RAM, for example (Intel's netbook spec runs up to 2Gb and earlier netbooks were typically sold with 1Gb but field-upgradable to 2Gb; many are now non-upgradable), max screen resolutions, all sorts of petty shite to defend the market for premium laptops that pay a full Windows license fee. They're even trying to kill the "netbook" name. For MS, usable netbooks are a threat -- customers are going to be reluctant to pay an extra $60-100 for a Windows license on kit that retails for $200-300, thus permitting a wedge opening for Linux on the desktop/laptop to gain traction.

As for my pricing, I'm basing it on UK retail, which is always considerably higher than US retail. (Thank you, Rip-Off Britain.) Netbooks that sell for US $300 go in the UK for £230-300, i.e. $375-500.

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