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Is the country ready for a $100 laptop? RadioShack (NYSE: RSH ) will begin selling the Acer Aspire One netbook for $99.99 at its stores on Sunday. The ultra-compact device comes with a 160-gigabyte hard drive, Windows XP, and a built-in webcam, but a meager one gigabyte of RAM. Still, at $100, it's a steal.
Is there a catch? You bet there is. Like wireless handsets and smartphones, the netbook is subsidized by a cell phone provider. Buyers will need to sign a two-year contract for AT&T's (NYSE: T ) DataConnect mobile broadband service, where wireless plans start at a lofty $60 a month.
Add it up and it's clearly not a bargain. Even if the netbook is worth nearly $400 on its own, one would be paying at least a whopping $1,540 (before taxes, even) over the next two years. In other words, despite the tempting sticker appeal, it is not going to win over gift-giving penny-pinchers who bother to read the fine print.
This doesn't mean that the RadioShack deal is a bad one. If you are going to make the most of the netbook's 3G connectivity by paying up for an unlimited data plan through AT&T, Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S ) , or Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) -- keeping you online, long after you've left the Wi-Fi hot spot -- you will be saving hundreds of dollars on the device itself through this deal.
This leaves me thinking, of course. If someone is willing to sign up for a subsidized netbook with an archaic operating system and a flimsy gig of RAM, why wouldn't the same deal work on a sturdier portable that will still be relevant in two years, like a new MacBook?
Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) is no stranger to AT&T subsidies. It makes far more than $199 on iPhone unit sales in this country because AT&T is sending roughly $375 more Apple's way in exchange for every two-year data plan commitment that is tethered to the smartphone purchase. Why can't it do the same for its MacBooks?
MacBooks start at $999 these days. How well would Apple fare marketing $600 or $700 MacBooks that are tied to data card contracts? It would certainly be one way to respond to the country's growing fascination with dirt-cheap netbooks at sub-$500 prices. It would also reach a crowd that would be more likely to pay $60 a month for connectivity than someone looking at an entry-level netbook.
Apple can't sit quietly and let netbooks with Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) and Linux operating systems swipe market share. It may be too late for this holiday season, but if Apple isn't readying an entry into the netbook market itself, it may as well take advantage of the same AT&T subsidies that shot iPhone sales to the next level this past summer.
Forget the fine print, Apple. The writing is on the wall.
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