Macs, Netbooks, and Education

What does it mean when an entire community springs up around hacking together a product that is not otherwise available? Apple has been adamant that it is not interested in the netbook market, but according to the many users who are breaking Apple’s EULA and installing OS X on Dell Minis, the market is there, and waiting.

Rumors have been circulating for some time now that Apple is working on a netbook. I wish I had some special insight or access to Apple’s inner-workings so I could confirm or deny those rumors, but all I can say is I hope so. To get everyone on the same page here, let me explain exactly what I mean when I say an Apple netbook. I’m talking about a small device with a ten inch (or smaller) screen, small physical keyboard, reduced hardware specs, running a legal, full copy of OS X. I’m not talking about an iPhone, or some kind of iPhone/MacBook hybrid. While its not clear if Apple would consider such a device or not, what is clear is that people would buy a $500 MacBook Nano (or NetMac?) in droves.

Part of the problem here is that this was thought up by someone other than Apple. Apple likes being the innovator in whatever it does, and it seems to me that they don’t like following where someone else has already gone. Fair enough, but by not offering what people are asking for, Apple is, in a round- about way, promoting the download of illegitimate hacked versions of OS X. They know that people want it, but they don’t know how to give it to them.

One of the arguments I’ve read against a Mac netbook is that offering such a device would cannibalize sales of their other notebook offerings. However, what that argument misses is that netbook sales are in a different sector than regular notebook sales. All of the traditional arguments against netbooks still apply, and are still just as valid. Cramped keyboard, small screen, underpowered hardware. The people who are buying netbooks are not trying to decide between a notebook or a netbook, they are not going to buy a notebook at all. The decision would not be whether to buy a Mac netbook or a MacBook, it would be whether to buy a Mac netbook or some other brand of netbook.

Traditionally, Apple has been strong in the education market. Netbooks are perfectly suited for use by students. The smaller keyboards fit their hands, and the small size and light weight of the netbooks make them easy to bring between classes, sit on a desk with room for writing, and tote back and forth from home. Without an Apple offering in this market, I would not be surprised at all to hear of increasing numbers of schools purchasing nine inch Acer netbooks.

The bottom line in the Mac netbook debate is that the market is ready for the product to appear, and willing to purchase it when it does arrive. What Apple needs to figure out is how to make a $500 computer that’s not junk. Dell, Sony, and HP seem to have figured it out. When, and if, Apple does release a netbook one thing is clear, they will make sure that it redefines the entire netbook market. Then, I’d imagine the little “NetMacs” selling by the truckload.