Apple will launch netbook competitor in '09, says analyst

Lousy economy will force Apple to launch a US$599 laptop

Apple will roll out a lower-priced and lighter-weight laptop in the first half of 2009 to compete in the growing "netbook" category, an analyst said today.

The slipping economy will force Apple to address a glaring omission in its line-up: the lack of a lower-priced laptop, said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research.

"Apple is facing the possibility that as the economic news gets worse, that they're increasingly pricing themselves out of an important market," said Gottheil. "Economic conditions are accelerating this."

Apple won't compete directly with netbooks on price or form factor, Gottheil maintained, but will have to respond with something he characterized as an "entry-level notebook" that could compete with the US$300-500 price tags of most netbooks. Currently, Apple's lowest-priced notebook is the older, white-cased MacBook, which the company retained when it unveiled new unibody MacBooks and MacBook Pros last month. That MacBook lists for US$999, although Best Buy has launched a sale of Apple hardware that prices the model at US$899.

Gottheil pegged the debut of a lower-priced laptop at sometime in the first six months of 2009, and said that the most likely price point would be $599. He based that on comments a month ago by Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who dismissed any desire to play in the netbook market as currently defined. "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 said at the time.

Apple's answer to the netbook, continued Gottheil, would probably be more like the MacBook than the MacBook Air -- Apple's thinnest, lightest laptop -- but the company is also unlikely to simply copy current netbooks, which in some instances have sported screens as small as 7 inches.

"Apple feels compelled to be a little different," said Gottheil. "It will look at the netbook form factor and then decide, 'What are the appealing characteristics that we can create under our price umbrella?'"

Gottheil's betting that Apple will stress light and thin over width and depth. "I think this will be more paper-sized, with more screen than most netbooks," he said. The new unibody MacBook, which sports a 13.3-in. display, takes the tape at 12.8-in. wide by 8.9-in. deep, slightly wider than a piece of paper is long.

Other traits an Apple netbook competitor might boast, said Gottheil, could include a touch-enabled screen and a limited amount of flash memory in lieu of a traditional platter-based hard drive. If the machine is flash-based, Apple might steer users toward its MobileMe online sync service for additional data storage. Apple could also point buyers to its new 24-in. stand-alone monitor, which includes a power connection to recharge a laptop, as well as USB 2.0 ports for jacking in a mouse and keyboard.

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