I was recently quoted about rumours that Apple was making a move to Netbooks. In conclusion: I think it's a lot of talk about something that's not going to happen... yet.
First: a disclaimer. I own an Apple Specialist, but none of the information contained in this article was gathered from any Apple sources, either officially or unofficially. It's all conjecture.
With that out of the way, my opinion is as follows. Apple is an incredible company with a history of design innovation. They have perfected a core OS (OS X) that runs on machines with 30" screens and 3" screens, with a multitude of interfaces - keyboards, tablets, mice, and touch. It's obvious to me that a device with a smaller screen than the 13" MacBook but larger than the iPod touch would be one of the many in development at One Infinite Loop. In fact, I would guess that there are literally dozens of prototypes with varying screen sizes of 6" to 10" lying around in some super-secret lab in Cupertino.
Does that mean that a Netbook from Apple is coming soon? Hardly. Design and innovation like Apple's isn't an overnight endeavour – just look at the story of the iPod's Birth. Apple isn't going to release anything until it's a device that truly defines a new category in consumer perception, like the iMac, iPod, and iPhone did.
But one thing's certain: Apple will find a place in the market where Netbooks now live - an affordable, portable device that can work as a computer and mobile device for the "rest of us." It makes total sense. Just like the iPhone, every Mac fanatic will get one just to have one (I will), and it will further reinforce Apple's position as being on the forefront of consumer technology while selling lots of units to keep shareholders happy.
It also will fill a hole in the Mac market. The MacBook Air is great - as I talked about in a previous post- but it took the price up as the functionality, performance, and size went down. That type of value proposition doesn't do well in a recession. Apple NEEDS a netbook-like device to capture the imagination of the same users that Asus, HP, and Lenovo are taking now.
So then, what will it look like? I doubt it will be a down-sized laptop - after all that will prove only that the MacBook Air was going the wrong direction, and Apple very seldom admits that they were wrong. And they can't make it smaller but less elegant for the sake of keeping MacBook Air buyers happy - that wouldn't be very Apple.
In my opinion, they'll approach it from the other direction: by enlarging the touch-screen enabled iPod touch and iPhone into a tablet-like device with full bluetooth capabilities. My guess is that they will play with the screen size to differentiate the product from Tablet PCs, for instance a super wide 7"-10" display - think of an iPhone twice its size in landscape mode. For those of you that own the new Apple Wireless Keyboard, imagine something that would fit snugly behind it when sliding it into a bag or purse. The device itself wouldn't have a keyboard of course, but combine it with this sleek keyboard and you'd have a fully functional, mobile computing device that would set up on any cafe table with the flick of a plastic or metal foot.
What software would it run? Not all of the Mac software, is my guess. The problem with that small form factor is that you simply can't run all of the iApps that Apple is proud of developing over the years - they've been designed with ever growing screen sizes in mind. Just look at the interface for iPhoto, iDVD, or GarageBand - they simply need more screen space to be useful. Same thing with all of the graphic and productivity apps with toolbars and inspectors. Small screen sizes just don't work with those interfaces.
Apple will have to instead develop apps that are larger versions of what is already in the iPhone ecosystem. After all, they've already shrunk iTunes into the iPod and iTunes apps on the iPhone; and iPhoto to the Photos app - each with UI features unique for the smaller form factor and touch interface. Having quadruple the screen space for such apps will make them immensely more powerful. Heck, the Photos app could turn into a LCD picture frame sitting on your bedside table while it charges.
My favorite mobile productivity app Omnifocus would benefit immensely from the screen space, but there's still no room for Microsoft Word on such a device. Of course, why would you bother with Word if you instead had a mobility-optimized version of iWork '09 (complete with iWork.com's online features for cloud based document sharing)?
Then add today's killer app: Voice Over IP. The one thing that this unnamed device would give Apple is a small, portable device free of the restrictions of their AT&T partnership. Enable Skype-like voice over IP using iChat as a foundation, add SIP compatibility for interoperability with Asterisk-based phone systems like Trixbox and Fonality's PBXtra, and suddenly you have an ultimate mobile productivity device with free calling from any Apple device to another. I don't know how large Skype's user base is right now, but Apple could get millions of users pretty quickly.
A device built like this would solidify Apple's OS, software, and hardware integration innovation, but only once they have the ecosystem around it complete. iWork and iLife need to be miniaturised, but they already have iTunes music, movies, and apps (heck, add HDMI and now you've got a pretty damn good portable media player). And with legions of developers making money off of their iPhone Apps, there's plenty of motivation to enlarge their software UI for a new target market.
For sure, Apple's foray into the super-iPod, sub-notebook market is coming. Just don't expect it to look, work, or interact like anyone else's - and don't expect it to show up on your doorstep tomorrow. Recession or not, these are still early days for mobile computing, especially at a company known for innovation. If there's a sign on fridge in the break room at Apple R&D, it probably says "You can't rush Genius, so don't bother asking when it will be done."