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Is netbook-bashing Apple set to release a netbook?

Does Apple's denigration of netbooks set the stage for a new Apple product?

As someone who's fascinated by the idea of Apple doing some sort of small device - not necessarily a netbook, but something bigger than an Apple iPod touch and smaller than an Apple MacBook - I pay close attention to what Apple says about the netbook market.

17in Apple MacBook Pro review

(If you haven't been paying attention, a netbook is a cheap, small laptop. PC makers are selling a lot of them. Apple doesn't make one.)

During the company's quarterly conference call with financial analysts yesterday, the analysts once again wanted to know what Apple was doing in the netbook market.

Back in January's first-quarter results call, an analyst asked Apple COO Tim Cook what Apple's intentions were for the fledgling netbook market.
What Cook said then was that netbooks were "much less powerful" than consumers wanted, with cramped keyboards and small displays. But Cook added: "We'll see. We are watching the space... We've got some ideas here."

If you follow Apple regularly, you'll know that the company often runs down its competitors in a category before introducing its own game-changing product in that category. Cook's past statements lead me to believe that Apple is indeed planning its own answer to the netbook - and his statements during Wednesday's conference call did nothing to dissuade me from that opinion.

Here's what Cook said yesterday:

"For us, it's about doing great products. And when I look at what is being sold in the netbook space today, I see cramped keyboards, terrible software, junky hardware, very small screens, and just not a consumer experience... that we would put the Mac brand on, quite frankly. And so it's not a space, as it exists today, that we're interested in, nor do we believe that customers in the long term would be interested in.

"That said, we do look at the space and are interested to see how customers respond to it. People that want a small computer, so to speak, that does browsing and email might want to buy an iPod touch or an iPhone. So we have other products to accomplish some of what people buy netbooks for. So in that way we play in an indirect basis.

"And if we can find a way to deliver an innovative product that really makes a contribution, then we'll do that. We have some interesting ideas in this space. The product pipeline is fantastic for the Mac. If you look at the past, in 17 of the last 18 quarters we've exceeded the market rate of growth, and to exceed it in this horrendous economy is quite an accomplishment, especially if you look at these very low-cost netbooks that I think is a stretch to call it a personal computer, that are really propping up unit numbers as a whole."

Once again, Apple attacks the cramped keyboards and small screens of the netbook - something I can agree with. I see this as an affirmation of Apple's unstated product philosophy that Mac laptops won't use anything smaller than a standard keyboard, and the company's real hesitation to make a laptop with a screen smaller than 13in.

Cook also repeats the claim Steve Jobs made last year, that in many ways the iPhone and iPod touch are Apple's "answer" to the netbook - or at least, to many consumers' needs for a small electronic device that does browsing and email.

Then comes the tease. Cook is suggesting that perhaps Apple is working on an "innovative product that makes a contribution" - not a big shocker there. In three months, the ideas Apple has for the netbook space have become "interesting".

And finally, the hammer: "I think [it's] a stretch to call [the netbook] a personal computer." Ouch. With smack talk like that, can Apple's entry into the netbook market be far behind?

See also: Apple: Netbooks are 'junky' and unusable

Jason Snell writes for Macworld

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