Latest insane rumor: Cellular carrier-subsidized MacBooks?

If you're looking for nutty Apple rumors but are tired of the usual suspects on the Web, why not try the financial analysts, whose track record in these things is no better but who make the big financial analyst bucks instead of scraping together ad revenue to pay their bandwidth costs? The latest comes from Lisa Thompson, an analyst with research boutique JRPG, ("research boutique"?). Thompson thinks that Apple is negotiatng with UK wireless carrier O2 to offer a subsidized notebook computer. This would presumably be along the lines of O2's current deal, wherein it offers Dell Inspiron Mini 9 netbooks for free (netbooks that "go like clappers," we might add, whatever that means in Brit-speak) if you sign up for a contract. The Dell comes with a wireless modem that connects to O2's 3G network.

It's a model that essentially mimics the one by which carriers have traditionally offered cell phones, and it's an interesting story in its own right, but what relevance it has to Apple is hard to fathom. Here, the relevant difference between Dell's netbook offering and even the cheapest Apple laptop is its price: The Inspiron Mini 9 retails for $349, less than half of the discounted last-generation MacBook. (The MacBook is also an order of magnitude more powerful, but leave that aside for the moment.) You can't subsidize a $999 computer enough to make it interesting to that market and profitable for a carrier. This smells like analysts grimly determined that Apple is going to get involved in the growing netbook market despite Apple's very public disinclination to do so, with somewhat ridiculous predictions as a result.

If Apple ever did enter this space, I have to say that I'm intrigued by this speculation from Jon Gruber:

I think -- and this is nothing more than my own speculation here -- that it's more likely that a hypothetical really small (as in much smaller than even the Air), really cheap (as in less than $700) notebook computer from Apple would not be a Mac. It'd run some variant of "OS X" of course, but I think it'd resemble a hot-rodded big-screen iPhone with a keyboard, not a stripped down small-screen MacBook. The iPhone OS would run faster on a $600 netbook than it does on an actual iPhone. Mac OS X would run slower, probably a lot slower. Apple builds things up, not down. Just my hunch.

And that, perhaps, might get subsidized.

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