Apple will launch netbook competitor in '09, says analyst

Lousy economy will force Apple to launch a US$599 laptop

The stumbling block to such a strategy -- which Gottheil also sees as a way for Apple to play in emerging markets, where the bulk of computer sales growth has occurred -- is that a lower-priced notebook will cannibalize sales of the current MacBook. "That's the only reason not to create this thing," he said.

He recognized that it would be a tough move for Apple, but not impossible. "It will be hard to give up the wonderful revenue they've gotten from basically exiting the entry-level market," Gottheil said. "But what Apple is addicted to more than ASP [Average Sales Price] is market share. And you can't keep flat ASPs forever."

In a research note released to clients last week, Gottheil noted that Mac laptop prices have dropped only an average of 0.1 percent per year in the last seven years. In the meantime, other computer makers have seen their ASPs drop significantly as first desktop, then notebook prices slid under competitive pressure. The netbook phenomenon, he said, is only the latest example of those price drops.

"Because Apple kept the price of its entry-level Macs higher than that of the competition during a long period of price decreases in the industry, Apple has essentially removed itself from the product category of entry-priced PC," Gottheil said in the research note.

Even Jobs left the door open last month to a change in strategy -- if Apple decides it needs to join the netbook game. "We'll wait and see how that nascent category evolves," Jobs said in late October during a conference call with Wall Street analysts. "And we've got some pretty interesting ideas if it does evolve."

According to Gartner, netbooks made up about 5 percent of US mobile PC sales in the second quarter, one to two percentage points over the same period the year before. Their strong sales, said Gartner, were due in large part to the gloomy global economic climate.

Adding a lower-priced notebook to compete with netbooks, Gottheil said, would give Apple "a chance to really gain share," something he sees the company very interested in doing. "It may be a MacBook-like thing, but they'll try to make it as different as they can."

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