Analysts just won't leave Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) alone. One of them, Ezra Gottheil of Technology Business Research, this week insisted that the iEmpire would have a netbook sometime in 2009.
"Apple is facing the possibility that as the economic news gets worse … they're increasingly pricing themselves out of an important market," Gottheil wrote in a research report. "Economic conditions are accelerating this."
True. Apple is facing an economic crisis, as is every other PC and device maker. But that doesn't mean the iEmpire needs netbooks to thrive.
Why Steve should say "nyet" to netbooks
Netbooks are stripped-down PCs priced for between $300 and $500 each. Intel's (Nasdaq: INTC ) Atom processor is behind most of them, including Dell's (Nasdaq: DELL ) Inspiron Minis. Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) sells around 70 netbooks from Acer, Samsung, and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) , among others, at its site. That's up from roughly 64 in October.
"They don't pack much in the features department, but at price points typically in the $400 range, netbooks are the right portable computing solution in this big-ticket-weary market," Foolish colleague Rick Munarriz wrote at the time.
He's waiting for Apple to create a netbook, as I'm sure are many. Hence Gottheil's thesis; demand certainly is not lacking. Why shouldn't Apple take advantage?
Because it's not Apple's style. "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," executives said in an October conference call with analysts.
Exactly. When Apple plays, it plays to win. To Steve Jobs, quality and inventiveness matter a lot more than speed does. Take the iPhone. We Fools were writing about the disruptive potential of an Apple-branded smartphone in 2006, about18 months before it reached market.
Nokia (Nasdaq: NOK ) was the global heavy in smartphones back then. Here in the U.S., we were suffering from a CrackBerry addiction. That market was nascent two years ago and still is; would it have been right for Jobs to roll out an iPhone early, to ride the tide that was lifting all boats, even Palm? I doubt it. Apple is better off today for waiting to create a product that would leave rivals scrambling to catch up.
And when I say "better off," I'm talking principally about how the iPhone helped Apple to produce $8.5 billion in free cash flow during fiscal 2008, about an 80% increase over last year's $4.7 billion. That's vintage Jobs -- investing to create sustainable, cash-gushing disruptions. If he and his team don't yet have an idea for how to do that with a netbook, they must wait.
Wait for the Tao of Steve to take hold
I'm not arguing that Apple should forever forsake the netbook. Rather, I'm saying that Jobs should forgo launching a low-cost product until the design is such that it will seriously disrupt the market, create a competitive sales advantage, and confer above-average margins.
We know this formula works because it's worked in the past:
- Disruption. Look at the iMac. The flat-screen design from 2002 landed on the cover of Time. Today's self-contained design has been copied by PC makers yet remains a strong seller. Desktop unit sales were up 15% in Apple's fiscal fourth quarter.
- Advantage. The iPhone touchscreen interface drew both skepticism and raves at launch but has proved to be a stroke of genius -- so much so that Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM ) just tried imitating it with the BlackBerry Storm.
- Margins. All of that cash flow from above? According to Apple's 10-K annual report: "The Company's cash generated by operating activities significantly exceeded its net income due primarily to the large increase in deferred revenue, net of deferred costs, associated with subscription accounting for iPhone."
Finally, consider Apple TV. It's an interesting product, to be sure. But was it ever really a generational leap beyond what competitors were offering? Not really, and I think so far it's been one of Apple's rare losers as a result.
So, yeah, the economy's a mess and competitors are rushing, like lemmings to the ledge, to sell low-cost PCs to strapped consumers. Will they profit? Who knows? Who cares? The Apple I bought into invests for returns, not scraps.
You have time, Steve. Build a better netbook -- one that blows apart the idea of what a netbook is -- and the customers will come. They always do.