Thursday, March 12, 2009

Is Apple Really Going to Produce a Netbook ?

It's possible, but sounds unlikely. There is a good chance that Apple is producing something, because the Chinese-language Commercial Times has just reported that: "Taiwan-based Wintek will supply touch panels for Apple's new netbook, and shipments will start in the third quarter this year." This was picked up by DigiTimes in Taiwan, but it doesn't tell us much.

Clearly there is a gap amid Apple's small-screen pocketable products, including the iPhone and iPod Touch, and its big-screen portable MacBooks. But if Apple wants to bridge it, it could start from either end.

Apple could produce a mini-notebook running Mac OS X on an Intel Atom processor, which would attempt with popular models such as the Asus Eee PC range and Acer Aspire One. Or it could produce a tablet computer running OS X (not the Mac version) on an ARM Cortex processor, which would be like a large iPod Touch.

The Wintek deal, if the reports are correct, suggests the latter is more likely. Wintek is pioneering what it calls Capacitive Type Touch Panels, with the initial target bazaar being smart phones and handheld game consoles. The company thinks that, over the long term, they will be used in large-screen machines such as netbooks and TVs, but it's starting small. An ARM-based device may also be advised more likely if it exploits the abilities that Apple brought in then it bought a chips firm, PA Semi.

On the other hand, touch screens are also the new frontier for the netbook market. Intel's Classmate 2 reference design is a convertible netbook/tablet PC design with a touch-sensitive screen, and advanced touch features are built into Microsoft Windows 7. There are also affairs for devices that have two screens and assignment like electronic books. If you want to do computing, you turn them around and one screen becomes a touch-sensitive keyboard. The OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project is developing an XO-2 along these lines, and Asus has shown a similar device in prototype. It's a bazaar that Apple could pioneer, making its new machine the Nintendo DS of twin-screen netbooks.

Although netbooks and touch-screen tablets are becoming popular today, both ideas go back to the 1980s, if not earlier, and have been tried many times before. Apple launched the infamous Newton MessagePad, a touch-screen tablet/PDA, in 1993, and did a small portable netbook version, the eMate, for the education market. Steve Jobs killed them off in 1998, when Apple was in a difficult financial position. In these difficult financial times, a big-screen iPod Touch looks a better bet than a small-screen MacBook, and less likely to undermine sales of Apple's very profitable portables.

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