Which is the real Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL)? The one that laid off 50 salespeople last week, or the one that's reportedly stocking up on 10-inch screens to create an answer to netbooks from Dell (NASDAQ:DELL), Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ), and Taiwan's Asus?

That's a question worth asking. Apple hasn't exactly been a font of good news lately. A recent study from Pinch Media found that very few of those who download iPhone software use it regularly. And, in January, Mac retail sales fell 6%, more than the average decline for its PC peers. Seeing that, observers can't help but wonder whether the iEmpire faces impending doom.

It doesn't. Here's why.

Why netbooks are a huge threat
First, let's address the problem. Analysts and investors fear netbooks. They should, and so should Tim Cook, Apple's chief operating officer and stand-in for sick CEO Steve Jobs. The super-low-priced Atom processor from Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) supplies enough horsepower to create a good sub-$500 laptop substitute.

Not in every case, of course, but IDC research has estimated that 11 million netbooks were sold during 2008. Manufacturing executives interviewed by BusinessWeek further estimate that between 8% and 20% of those sales might have gone to laptops had netbooks not been available.

Netbooks are that popular. Take a look at Twitter sometime. See who's talking about netbooks. See what they say. Few, if any, loathe the idea of a Mac netbook or netbooks in general.

Neither do you, our Foolish readers. "I'd love a $699 NetMacBook and would buy one in a heartbeat," wrote one Fool in response to my plea that Cook address the netbook threat before it's too late. "It should have an 11" or smaller screen, weigh 3lbs or less and be capable of running OS X. It should be smaller than current MacBooks, less powerful, though powerful enough, and can get by with many cheaper components." 

The opportunity is huge. We know from recent IDC data that users find dumb devices, well, dumb. Specifically, research shows that the market for "converged devices" -- that is, smartphones like the iPhone, Research In Motion's (NASDAQ:RIMM) BlackBerry, or Palm's (NASDAQ:PALM) forthcoming Pre -- grew 68.2% last year. By contrast, the traditional mobile phone market contracted 13.8% over the same period.

Now imagine how consumers and business users would take to an oversized iPhone with netbook functionality. Says one Fool in response to my letter to Cook:

An iTablet is what's needed. Just take the lid off the aluminum MacBook, thicken it just a bit to accommodate a modest processor and hard drive and battery and wireless, and run OSX on it with all the great finger-stroke features of iPhone.

Look back to look forward
And let's not discount the role of history. Those of us who are Mac users, unlike our more utilitarian PC brethren, remember the failures and successes of the past with clarity. We remember the unique look of the first Mac. We coo at the Cube, even though it was never a commercial success. And we fondly but sadly remember the Newton, which also was a commercial failure, yet retains a cult following to this day. 

We expect Apple to deliver an iTablet. Jobs knows this. So does Cook. Anyone who's followed the iEmpire for any length of time and isn't terminally addicted to SpongeBob cartoons knows this.

An iTablet is even more important to us than satellite radio on the iPhone. Sure, we're happy to see Sirius (NASDAQ:SIRI) get serious about streaming over the iPhone but we've been waiting for an iTablet ever since the Newton died in 1998. We pine for it.

Therein lies your advantage, sirs. This is a Field of Dreams moment; if you build it, we will come. So, Apple, will you build it? Please?

Dell and Intel are Inside Value picks. Apple is a Stock Advisor selection. The Fool owns shares and covered calls of Intel. Try either of these Foolish services free for 30 days. There's no obligation to subscribe.

Tim had stock and options position in Apple at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Twitter as @milehighfool. The Motley Fool is also on Twitter as @TheMotleyFool. Its disclosure policy is hungry. (Hangs "Out to Lunch" sign.)