PALO ALTO, Calif. —
Apple alone stood against the tide of netbooks. Apple's brilliant insight was that despite netbooks' popularity, nobody really wanted a netbook per se. Instead, Apple realized that people who were buying netbooks were looking for one of two things — they wanted full-fledged laptops that were very portable, or they wanted cheap machines that allowed them to easily surf the Web, use email and do other light computing tasks. Rather than building a single netbook that fit both these audiences poorly, Apple built two machines that were, each in its own way, much better than any netbook ever sold.
In 2008, Apple launched the expensive but very portable MacBook Air, and then in 2010, it put out the cheap but capable iPad. Neither was a direct substitute for the netbook. But consumers immediately recognized their utility — and quickly abandoned netbooks. The iPad and the Air became the blueprints for the rest of the industry, with every other PC manufacturer now making similarly thin laptops and touchscreen tablets. Thus, thanks to Apple — and Apple alone — we were all saved from the rise of terrible tiny machines.
It's difficult, now, to appreciate how courageous Apple's refusal to join the netbook parade once was. In 2008, its cheapest laptop sold for more than $1,000. This was crazy expensive in the midst of a global recession, and investors and analysts were hounding the company to lower its prices. Apple's stock price sank to less than $100.
But Apple had two reasons for holding steady against netbooks. One was noble: Shrinking a laptop to the size of netbooks — which typically had 7- or 9-inch screens and very slow Intel Atom processors — made for an inherently inferior computing experience. At that size, pointing devices and keyboards became very annoying to use, and operating systems designed for systems with more power worked like molasses. In other words, netbooks were awful, and Apple didn't want to make lousy computers. As Steve Jobs told investors in 2008, "We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk. Our DNA will not let us do that."