Will Apple and Google go to war over netbooks?

With a Google Android notebook already spotted in the wild and rumors heating up about an Apple netbook, Microsoft's two biggest competitors may soon go head to head with one another in the increasingly crowded netbook market. The winner? Consumers, who can expect lower prices, more features, and greater choice.

Fellow Computerworld blogger Seth Weintraub found the first announced Android-based notebook, the Alpha-680 Google Android netbook from SkyTone, a Guangzhou, China-based company that makes Skype headsets and very low cost computers for children. The specs, as he reports them, are underwhelming --- 7-inch screen, 800 by 480 resolution, 128 MB of RAM, and 1 GB flash memory. Still, you get WiFi, Ethernet, and USB ports, and for only about $100 it's not a bad deal.

Other Android-based notebooks are in the works, and they'll certainly be more powerful than the one from SkyTone.

Rumors about the planned Apple netbook continue to make the rounds. Most recently, DigiTimes Systems reports that Foxconn Electronics may be the ultimate manufacturer of Apple netbooks. Within the last several weeks, the Wall Street Journal has reported that Steve Jobs may be heading up the Apple netbook development effort.

I would expect both Google and Apple to position their netbooks as the anti-Microsoft hardware. If anything comes out of Apple it will certainly be well-designed and a beautiful piece of machinery. As for Google, the company won't design the hardware, and so will have less control over their netbooks, in the same way that Microsoft doesn't have control.

To succeed, both Google and Apple will probably have to take somewhat of a similar marketing approach --- we're not Microsoft. Microsoft has the netbook market almost sewn up, so both companies will have to give consumers some reason to defect from the market leader. I would expect Apple to sell at the high end of the netbook market. As for Google, it's tough to tell who they'll sell to at this point. The Skytone machine certainly isn't their market. Techies and Linux devotees would seem to be the right target, though.

One way or another, though, Apple and Google will have to go head to head. When you're chasing the market leader, you need to position yourself as the best viable alternative. So they'll likely have to fight over that turf.

Expect marketing and deals to arrive when Windows 7 ships, most likely later this year. Microsoft will be pushing Windows 7 heavily, so you can expect discounts and new notebook features then. Google netbooks will probably be around by then, and if Apple really is preparing a netbook, it wouldn't be a surprise to see one before the holiday season. It'll be a great time to be a consumer.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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