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Analyst predicts Apple will unveil Netbook

Technology Business Research isn't calling it a done deal, but says a Netbook will be unveiled at Macworld as a way of getting the company in front of price-sensitive customers.

Macworld might bring a new Mac Netbook smaller and lighter than the MacBook Air, according to one analyst.

Macworld Rumor Week is now in full swing.

Ezra Gottheil of Technology Business Research anted up Tuesday with a research note predicting, but not reporting, that Apple will announce a low-cost "Netbook" style Mac in January at Macworld. He told Computerworld, "I don't have any inside information" but nonetheless believes that Apple will release a small low-cost laptop to get in on the Netbook craze and satisfy those calling for a cheaper Mac.

The Apple-doing-a-Netbook rumor has been around for several months, despite Apple's attempts to push it back down. As recently as October, CEO Steve Jobs trotted out the old line about how Apple doesn't know how to make a cheap computer "that isn't a piece of junk," and said Apple was watching the Netbook market but didn't really think at this point, there was any there there.

Gottheil thinks Apple has to move down the price ladder because the other PC vendors have cut prices significantly this year, moving Apple "out of the most price-sensitive markets, including the fastest growing emerging economies." He thinks if Apple released a $599 Netbook-style product that was designed like the iPhone--a simple user interface fed by the App Store and iTunes--it could be a hit.

Netbook sales have been growing, but this report seems more like an attempt to get in on the pre-Macworld rumor mill than anything substantial. Just 5.6 million Netbooks were sold during the past quarter; this isn't exactly a huge market that Apple is missing out on.

And the creator of the Netbook idea--Intel--has backed off its evangelism of the category after realizing it was killing its margins. For years, Apple has wisely avoided the temptation to get sucked into developing low-cost but low-margin hardware that holds nothing but trouble: once you start chasing the low-price dragon in this industry your customers learn to expect cheap computers every year, with no sympathy for your gross margins.

Still, Jobs is notorious for insisting Apple isn't going to release certain kinds of products right up to the point when Apple releases those same products (video iPods and mobile phones, most prominently). And Apple will have to release something interesting at Macworld; a new Mac Mini and an iPhone Nano are the other rumors currently making the rounds.