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Why Apple must do a Netbook now

With news that users are hacking Windows and Linux Netbooks to run OS X--and run it pretty well--Apple needs to release a Netbook of its own before it loses ground in the highest-growth laptop category.

Mac OS X loading onto the Dell Mini 9.

My brother-in-law Ken IM'd me the other day with this message: "Did you see they're loading OS X on Netbooks?" He sent me a link to a Gizmodo article that explained how to hack a Netbook into running Apple's OS X. He also pointed me to a chart that BoingBoing put together showing how compatible various Netbooks are with OS X.

Obviously, none of this stuff is geared to the average consumer--and there are certainly some bugs to contend with--but with some tweaks, techies have gotten certain Netbooks to run OS X shockingly well. Perfect or not, those articles and some videos had my brother-in-law, who's a total Applehead, champing at the bit to get his hands on an Apple Netbook.

Here's the conversation that followed:

Ken: "Apple really needs to do a Netbook."

Me: "Yes, now. It's the biggest growth category in laptops. They're missing out on a big opportunity to take Windows' share away."

Ken: "Apple keeps saying it doesn't want to go near the low-end and make crappy notebooks with low margins. Would tarnish the brand, hurt the bottom line."

Me: "They're lying. They know they have to go there."

Ken: "Agree."

Me: "So they slap a little design flair on the thing, put one model out for $599 and another for $699. Sure, the Windows version would cost you $350-$450, but I'd have no problem paying the Apple premium on one of these."

Ken: "A lot of people would pay $599 for an Apple Netbook."

Me: "No one's buying the Macbook Air at $1,800."

Ken: "I wouldn't say no one."

Me: "OK, but it's sort of the Apple TV of laptops. It's just not that relevant. Most people would prefer buying a more powerful notebook that weighs a little more for a grand."

Ken: "I agree. I almost bought an Air when it first came out, but I'm glad I didn't pull the trigger." [Note: Ken uses a MacBook Pro but he wants a Netbook for nonbusiness travel].

Me: "Apple always talks about design--and they do have great designers--but what people want now is cheap. As I said, this thing doesn't have to be a masterpiece. I'd rather see them keep things simple and elegant and keep the cost down to $599."

Ken: "You should write a column."

Me: "I will."

I have a feeling a lot of other people are having similar conversations. And while I believe that Apple's on the verge of missing an opportunity here--and think it needs to move quickly to put out a Netbook--I also think that it's well aware of the market dynamics.

Microsoft has made it a point to say that Windows 7 is designed to run on entry-level machines, and it's clearly targeting low-cost Netbooks as the next big frontier.

At the same time, Apple is heading toward its own release of a new operating system, Snow Leopard, which is also designed to run faster and more efficiently. So, you'd think that it, too, is ultimately looking toward more inexpensive PCs, including a so-called MacBook Mini and the much-rumored next-gen Mac Mini.

As far my Netbook experience goes, I've been working on and off on a Lenovo S10 loaner unit, and like it enough to strongly consider one of these machines over the next few months.

My brother-in-law is encouraging me to convert the Lenovo into an OS X machine (the S10 is on the list of Netbooks that do pretty well with OS X), though he knows that neither Apple nor Lenovo would be too keen on me doing this. As Gizmodo says, "Hackintoshing" violates the OS X EULA, and should you want to return your hacked Lenovo S10 or Dell Mini 9 for service, you'll probably get the cold shoulder.

"I'm really tempted to buy one of these things and put OS X on it," he IM'd me last night. "I can get a loaded Dell Mini 9 Linux version for just over $400. 2 gigs of RAM and a 32GB flash-based drive."

He'd rather wait for the Apple Netbook, of course. But I have a feeling that if it doesn't come soon, he's not going to be able to wait any longer. The force is strong for the Apple lover who longs for a Netbook.

What do you guys think?

Helpful links:

CNET's best Netbooks (full reviews)

Gizmodo's step-to-step guide to turning the Dell Mini 9 into a Mac Netbook

BoingBoing Netbook compatibility chart

Wired's running OS X on a Netbook (Apple made Wired pull the video)

Wake up and restore from MSI Wind Netbook with Mac OS X (YouTube video):

Acer Aspire time trial with video running (YouTube video)