Switched On: MacBook mini would answer iPhone's call

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

A few weeks ago a two-part Switched On column (see: here and here) discussed Apple's approach to the iPhone keyboard. I agreed with Apple's reasoning that, for a phone, or at least this first iPhone, the gains that could be made by going with a soft keyboard outweighed the cons. And, make no mistake (or actually a lot of them with typos), there are cons. Even in a best-case scenario of perfect accuracy, the iPhone's keyboard has drawbacks. There are, for example, no cursor keys, (Mac history buffs will remember that this is just what the original Macintosh forced users to do as its keyboard had no arrow keys), and users must go into punctuation (albeit briefly if using the famous "Pogue period" hint) mode whenever you want to type a period.

Since Apple seems to have decided that keyboards are only for laptops and larger devices, and now has an opportunity to create an embedded appliance (call it Foleo-like, if you must) loaded not with some souped-up file viewers but embedded versions of, Pages, Keynote, perhaps some future Apple spreadsheet product, and a light version of FileMaker (which, for all of Apple's stealth initiatives, is one of the company's best-kept secrets). iWork, much like Safari, may well have some agenda beyond being a Microsoft insurance policy for the Mac.

Accuse this embedded Mac product of being the reincarnation of the OmniBook 300 if you will, but much of the interest in low-cost laptops has been spurred by the advent of Web 2.0 services. Safari would, of course, also make the trip, preferably supporting Java and Flash like it does on other Macs. I'd bet my domain name that Apple already has this expanded web app support internally.

But price all-day powered, single USB-ported 2 pound ultraportable at $500, and you've got a dream machine for (at least K-12) students, journalists, note jotters, or anyone who lives a web lifestyle and can't be productive on their iPhone, but doesn't want to lug around their MacBook Pro. Apple could even enable Bluetooth dial-up networking on the iPhone just for this product. Of course, the question remains: should this kind of in-between product be open to third party development? I'd argue yes -- the product's flash-based storage and RAM cap would prevent it from infringing on sales of "real" notebooks like the MacBook, and there's no jeopardy to the titular asset of a carrier's wireless network. Besides, it could be a small token of goodwill for Mac developers disappointed that they don't get to play in the iPhone's sandbox (yet).

Apple has already non-announced that we will see iPods running Mac OS as the iPhone has revealed that the company has it running very responsively on an embedded ARM processor. And cheaply. Its options are many -- stick with Intel, experiment with Via, use ARM. If it can shrink down Mac OS X to run so well on the relatively modest hardware of the iPhone, all that stands between Mac users and a low-cost ultraportable is whether Apple belief that the market can sustain such a device, and competitors (like Palm's Foleo) will provide test cases for that in short order.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at Views expressed in Switched On are his own.