In the time leading up to Apple’s iPad launch, during the doldrums of the recession, and as PC makers like Acer experienced huge growth selling cheap little laptops, many observers said that Apple — king of the high-end computer — needed to make a netbook to keep up.The Apple faithful, of course, ridiculed the idea, and Steve Jobs even trashed netbooks during a rare appearance on the Apple earnings call in October, 2008.
“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,” Jobs said.
That, however, was another one of Jobs’ famous little fibs, where he says one thing but means exactly the opposite.
And the people who said that Apple needed to make a netbook were right.
They were just wrong about what Apple’s netbook would look like. It wouldn’t be a follower, but a leader.
Apple’s first and main product that is effectively a “netbook” was the iPad, a $500 tablet computer that was certainly not a piece of junk — to use Jobs’ words — and has been a wild success.
Yes, it looks different than one of those original netbook laptops, but it’s functionally similar: Useful for casual web browsing, checking email at Starbucks, simple games, etc. (And much more.)
And it has been a huge hit.
In its first 9 months on the market, Apple sold nearly 15 million iPads, generating almost $10 billion in revenue. During those 9 months, it was Apple’s second-fastest growing business after the iPhone, contributing three times more new revenue than the Mac.
For the March quarter, which Apple will report on Wednesday, analysts expect Apple to announce 5-6 million iPad shipments. That’s at least another $3 billion in revenue. And it could have been a lot more if Apple could make iPads even faster.
Some analysts predict Apple will sell 45 million iPads this year, which is basically as many Macs as Apple has sold over the past 5 fiscal years.
Today, Apple actually has two netbooks — not just the iPad 2, but also the 11-inch MacBook Air, which launched late last year. It’s not as cheap as the iPad or other netbooks, but this time, it looks like a netbook. For most people, it’s a secondary computer — just like those old netbooks. It’s just much better (and more expensive). And it. too, has become popular, helping Apple’s Mac business to keep growing faster than the overall PC industry.
Bigger picture: Apple’s refined vision of the netbook, the iPad, has defined a new category of computer, and competitors are struggling to copy it.
The iPad has particularly taken a lot of business away from netbooks; netbook sales were down 40% year-over-year in March, according to a note today from Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty.
And the companies that saw the most growth from the original netbooks need to act fast.
Acer CEO Gianfranco Lanci resigned earlier this month as his company has struggled to respond to the iPad. And Microsoft has had a flame lit under it as it rushes to come up with a viable tablet product, as huge Windows partners like HP invest in their own platforms.
So, yes, Apple did need to make a netbook. It just needed to make it on its own terms, just as it did with the mobile phone and music player before it. (And, perhaps someday, it will do this for the TV.) And now it’s paying off big.
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